Kure Beach, North Carolina, a quiet beach town of just about 2,000 people, seems an unlikely place for a movement to start. But in January 2014, more than 300 concerned citizens showed up at a town meeting to protest the mayor’s support for offshore drilling exploration. This moment, captured on video, sparked a movement that has swept the Atlantic coast.
And now the movement has come back to where it started. Last week, Kure Beach passed a resolution opposing seismic airgun blasting and offshore drilling off the East Coast. With this resolution, Kure Beach became the 100th municipality on the Atlantic seaboard to come out against offshore drilling activities. These towns are part of a groundswell of opposition to plans by the Obama administration to open the Atlantic Ocean to industrial offshore drilling for the first time in U.S. history and to allow the use of seismic airguns to search for oil and gas deposits below the ocean floor from Delaware to Florida. The risks and costs associated with offshore drilling exploration and development threaten the coastal communities whose economies are tied to the ocean. Along the Atlantic coast, nearly 1.4 million jobs and over $95 billion in gross domestic product rely on healthy ocean ecosystems, mainly through fishing, tourism and recreation.
Seismic airguns are used to search for oil and gas deposits deep beneath the ocean floor. Towed behind large ships, they shoot loud blasts of compressed air through the water. These blasts travel miles into the seabed and reflect back information about buried oil and gas deposits. In order to penetrate deep into the ocean floor, the blasts need to be powerful: this also makes them loud enough to disturb, injure and even kill marine life, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. These blasts can also harm commercial fisheries. And these disruptions are not rare occurrences – when in use, the blasts are repeated every ten seconds, 24 hours a day, for days to weeks at a time. Seismic airgun blasting could injure as many as 138,000 whales and dolphins and disturb millions more. And the harm done to the ocean can, in turn, negatively impact the economies that depend on it, as commercial fisheries are disrupted or tourism is impacted due to cetaceans declines.
After oil and gas deposits are located by seismic airgun blasting, drilling could begin. Offshore oil drilling operations inevitably bring pollution through daily operations as well as through leaks, and the threats of larger spills and blowouts are constant. Oil successfully removed from beneath the ocean floor still needs to be transported via pipelines, tanker vessels, and trains to refineries and points of distribution and use. Each of these stages is also susceptible to accidents. This risk is not merely hypothetical: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that spills happen nearly every day. Wherever oil is being extracted, there is risk of an accident, and we have seen that these spills can have extreme consequences. Eleven people died when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, and for 87 days after, oil gushed uncontrolled into the open ocean, polluting our waters, killing sea life and putting communities out of work.
Further, offshore oil drilling ultimately results in the burning of more fossil fuels, releasing more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. These emissions drive climate change and increase the acidification of the oceans. Offshore wind development in the Atlantic is an alternative that has the potential to generate twice as many jobs and twice as much energy as offshore drilling without the accompanying risks.
Because so much is at stake, what began in Kure Beach has spread. In South Carolina, more than 400 business leaders held a news conference to demand that Gov. Nikki Haley (R) rescind her support for offshore drilling. The hospitality industry in Virginia Beach, counting on the 6 million visitors a year that drive the local tourism economy, has voiced its opposition as well. All told, more than 100 East Coast municipalities, 100 members of Congress, 660 state and local elected officials, and roughly 750 business interests have come together to oppose offshore drilling in the Atlantic. And their efforts continue today in Washington, D.C., at Oceana’s Coastal Voices Summit.
Oceana is joining with members of Congress and our fellow ocean advocates to make sure the White House understands the risks of offshore drilling exploration. The administration should listen to the voices raised in unison from Delaware to Florida: Obama can and should take the East Coast out of the offshore drilling plan for the sake of marine life and local economies.
Danson is an actor and board member of Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans. Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana.