Re-energize coastal protection campaign

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The oil industry has increased its pressure on Congress and the administration to allow exploration for offshore oil and gas deposits on the Atlantic coast. Coastal communities from Florida to Maryland should be prepared to push back twice as hard.

For the moment, permits for seismic testing off the Atlantic coast are still pending before the National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that has been reviewing the potential harm from such testing to marine life since July 5.

But the House Natural Resources Committee last week adopted a bill promoted by the oil industry that would severely curtail the power of NOAA to use the Marine Mammal Protection Act to delay or deny seismic testing permits.

Meanwhile, Congress adopted a budget resolution last month on behalf of filibuster-proof legislation to allow drilling for oil and gas in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, a provision long sought by the petroleum industry but adamantly opposed by environmentalists and Senate Democrats.

According to the new congressional budget plan, federal leases of drilling rights in ANWR will bring in funds to offset proposed tax cuts.

A similar rationale can be anticipated to open other public lands and offshore areas to petroleum and gas prospecting, including the Atlantic continental shelf.

The Interior Department has already agreed to license offshore wells in a vast new area in the Gulf of Mexico. And Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last May, implementing a new executive order from the White House, ordered agencies reporting to him, including the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, to expedite applications for offshore oil exploration. Included are at least five pending applications for seismic testing in the Atlantic. The major hurdle these applications have to overcome is controlled by the National Marine Fisheries Service. But it, too, is subject to the White House order to expedite applications from the petroleum industry.

NMFS must rule that any impairment to marine life resulting from underwater seismic testing is "incidental," in a document known as an "Incidental Harassment Authorization." Of particular concern is the survival of the North Atlantic right whale, a critically endangered species of which about 500 are left. They calve off the Carolina and Georgia coasts in areas where seismic testing is proposed. According to comments submitted to the National Fisheries Service by the North Carolina Coastal Federation, "It is clear that approving an IHA for the current seismic survey applicants could have long-term, detrimental impacts on" the endangered right whale population and "other marine mammals."

A map produced by Oceana, an environmental organization that has been coordinating opposition to drilling, shows that all five firms seeking seismic testing permits plan to operate close to the shores of Atlantic Coast states from Maryland to Florida and could have a major impact on local fisheries.

A concerted outcry from Atlantic seaboard communities persuaded the Obama administration to cancel plans for seismic testing of the Atlantic continental shelf. Every local government in coastal South Carolina opposed the drilling plan and were backed by their representatives in congressional districts. That united voice must be raised again, now, and louder.

Seismic testing is the first step toward opening Atlantic coastal waters to offshore oil and gas drilling. The American Petroleum Institute dismisses the near unanimous opposition of coastal communities to offshore oil exploration as based on "a lot of exaggeration" about the impact on fisheries and tourism, according to U.S. News, which also opines that low oil prices will discourage exploration any time soon.

But once deposits are found, the pressure to exploit them will eventually rise as the world depletes its fossil fuel resources. And once the exploitation begins, the impact on the shoreline cannot be halted, and the possibility of catastrophic spills from human error or equipment failure cannot be ruled out. Billions of dollars from tourism and fisheries will be imperiled. The time to stop exploitation of the Atlantic coastline by the petroleum industry is now.

Editor's note: This editorial originally ran in the Nov. 12 edition of the Charleston Post and Courier.