Exploring For Offshore Oil Damages Environment and Economy

By Susan Olsen #ourvoicesourmaryland Contributor 

Since President Trump signed an executive order, the “America First” Energy Plan, in April 2017, there has been renewed furor from the fossil fuel industry and the Trump administration to open the Atlantic to offshore oil and gas development. 

Often overlooked, the exploratory phase of offshore oil and gas development presents a host of economic and environmental threats.  Five companies have already submitted permits to conduct surveys for offshore oil and gas deposits using seismic airgun blasting. This procedure uses up to 40 airguns, each one emitting one of the loudest man-made sounds on earth, to locate oil and gas deposits deep beneath the seafloor.  These arrays of airguns emit blasts every ten to twelve seconds, 24 hours a day, for several weeks at a time.

Think of the confusion in marine mammals such as whales, seals, and dolphins who depend on sound for every vital function:  feeding, mating, migrating, and danger warnings. There is evidence to suggest these surveys lead to physical harm and sometimes even deaths of these treasured creatures.  Avoidance behavior has been observed by conservationists as these animals try desperately to leave the location of the sound.

The blasting often scares fish away from commercially important fishing areas. Studies have shown reduced catch rates of up to 80% for some species of fish in areas where airguns are employed. In fact, watermen in Trinidad recently received $77.3 million as compensation for the damage seismic airgun blasting caused to their fishing industry.

It has also been discovered that seismic airgun blasting potentially kills zooplankton, the base of the ocean food chain, up to three-quarters of a mile away from the blast site.  Few may

Realize that Chesapeake blue crabs are part of the zooplankton biomass in the Atlantic during a portion of their juvenile life, potentially putting them, the watermen who depend on them, and the fragile Chesapeake Bay ecosystem at risk.  

Maryland’s Eastern Shore is a place with deep economic and cultural ties to both the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic. The exploration and development of an offshore oil and gas industry off our coast threatens that.  What’s worse, there is only estimated to be about a 6-month supply of oil and 7-month supply of gas in the entirety of the Atlantic based on current national consumption rates. Should we put our economic livelihood, culture, and environment at risk for the negligible amount of oil and gas that may be recovered in the Atlantic?

What is most interesting about this issue, however, is the tremendous bipartisan cooperation to stop offshore drilling and seismic airgun blasting since President Trump’s executive order.  Republican Governor Hogan has clearly stated his opposition to offshore drilling, and Democratic Attorney General Brian Frosh has been working diligently to prevent any offshore actions. Democratic State Senator Jim Mathias has also been a champion on this issue.  Even more amazing, this bipartisan resistance is not limited to Maryland.

Every single governor of Atlantic coast states (except Maine), both Republicans and Democrats alike, oppose offshore drilling as well as seismic airgun blasting.  In addition, Oceana reports that there is bipartisan opposition from more than 1,700 local, state, and federal elected officials.

Things came to a head in July when a group of representatives sponsored amendments to the annual appropriations bill for the Interior Department and the EPA.  The proposed legislation

would have blocked funding for drilling off both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts as well as the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

There was tremendous excitement among those of us who were following these actions in the House and observing the tremendous civic action from everyday citizens calling Maryland Republican Rep. Andy Harris.  It truly looked as if the bills would pass. On July 18th, the amendments were to be introduced and voted on in the House.  And then it happened. House Speaker Paul Ryan refused to allow the amendments onto the floor to be voted on.

It should be mentioned that despite this tremendous bipartisan effort, Rep. Andy Harris of District One has been strangely absent.  Although he briefly mentioned in a townhall that he would oppose drilling off Maryland’s coast, he has never supported legislation to ban offshore drilling.  Furthermore, just opposing drilling in Maryland would never be effective. Oil spills do not follow state lines, and the sound from seismic airgun blasting reaches approximately 2500 miles.  We need a national ban on offshore drilling as well as seismic airgun blasting.

In addition, Harris refused to sign a letter sent by Maryland’s congressional delegation requesting that Maryland be removed from the offshore drilling plan.  This is curious because the letter was sent after Harris said he opposed offshore drilling.

Environmentalists who are closely watching Harris on this issue may want to look to his opponent, Democrat Jesse Colvin, in the upcoming election.  Before the primary election in June,

the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge extended an invitation for all District One candidates to meet with their scientists. Colvin was the only one who showed up, and he spent six hours discussing environmental issues with their scientists.

        There is hope on the horizon.

The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Our Maryland or Our Maryland Education Fund.

A version of this article was originally published at www.delmarvanow.com