State and federal lawmakers from both parties have joined East Coast business interests to convince the Trump administration to halt its plan for fossil fuel development in the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s a surprisingly diverse collection of power players: members of Congress, dozens of lawmakers from both red and blue states, nine attorneys general, six governors and thousands of business owners from Florida through the Carolinas and up to New Jersey.
They hope that mix and their economic, not environmental, argument will sway President Donald Trump’s Interior Department as it nears a decision on testing that could open the door to oil and gas exploration, and eventually drilling, off the coast.
“The wall of opposition that has been built up to Atlantic drilling and seismic testing is amazing,” said Frank Knapp, chief executive of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce and president of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, an organization supported by more than 41,000 businesses and 500,000 commercial fishing families on the East Coast.
Environmental groups have worked for years to stop oil and gas development, focusing on the threat it poses to coastal marine life. Lawmakers and business leaders, however, are raising concerns about the economic effect that seismic testing and drilling could have on the multi-billion dollar coastal tourism and fishing industries.
Time is running out for them to make the case. The Interior Department is now reviewing whether to allow the first-ever seismic tests in the Atlantic and whether to allow oil and natural gas leasing there as well after both activities were barred by the Obama administration.
Many in the business and environmenal communities expected Interior to quickly sign off on seismic testing once the public comment period ended in July. That’s because Trump had issued an executive order in April that called for making millions of acres of federal coastal waters available for oil and gas leasing.
"That fear was real,” Knapp said of issuing permits for testing. “So we did everything we could to activate Congress, to activate the governors, the attorney generals and business voices to where (the government) ended up getting more than 80,000 public comments. And I guarantee, 99 percent were opposing it."
Ocean-related commerce, from the hotel and restaurant industry to recreational and commercial fishing, generates $95 billion in economic activity each year and supports nearly 1.4 million jobs on the Atlantic coast, members of Congress argued in a recent letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Offshore drilling supporters say Atlantic exploration and drilling would bring more jobs and economic development to the East Coast. But opponents say restaurants, hotels and other businesses could be jeopardized by the possibility of a large oil spill, like the one that damaged comparable businesses in Gulf states following the Deepwater Horizon spill.
Attorneys general of nine states have voiced their opposition to seismic testing, along with more than 100 members of Congress and 14 U.S. senators. Another 107 members of Congress have also opposed drilling on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. In South Carolina alone, 32 state legislators have opposed offshore drilling in the Atlantic.
The governors of six East Coast states — South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware — have voiced their opposition to seismic testing or drilling. They include Republican governors Larry Hogan of Maryland and Henry McMaster of South Carolina.
Republican Governors Nathan Deal of Georgia and Rick Scott of Florida haven’t taken a position, thus far. But Knapp said even that’s a victory of sorts.
"We’ll take silence,” Knapp said. “Silence is great when it’s coming from past vocal advocates."
Certainly, many business groups and Republicans in coastal states still support offshore drilling and testing. Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia has introduced a bill to require oil and natural gas lease sales off the Virginia coast. Rep. Dave Brat, another Virginia Republican, also has a bill calling for drilling in the Atlantic. And GOP Reps. Dave Rouzer of North Carolina and Jeff Duncan of South Carolina recently co-sponsored a bill to make it easier to obtain seismic testing permits.
“The methodologies, techniques, technology, and safety protocols currently in place are the most refined and advanced they have ever been — ensuring that every aspect of (oil and gas) exploration can be done in a safe and environmentally sensitive way,” Rouzer said in a statement.
But just last week, Rep. Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican, called on colleagues to amend an Interior Department spending bill to block seismic testing in the Atlantic.
“At home, every municipality of every town and hamlet along the coast of South Carolina has come out unanimously against the idea of offshore drilling and seismic testing, not because they’re against fossil fuel, but simply because they believe that they want to determine themselves how the coast of South Carolina develops,” Sanford said on the House floor.
In a June letter to Interior Secretary Zinke, Rep. John Rutherford, a Florida Republican, spoke on behalf of more than 100 Democrats and Republicans against seismic testing, which can disrupt breeding, feeding and hearing in marine mammals.
“Traveling through my district, I have heard from countless business owners and residents along the North Floirda coasts who are concerned,” Rutherford wrote. “Our coastal economy should not be put at undue risk at a time when our booming oil and gas production is more than enough to meet our current energy needs.”
Indeed, depressed oil prices, abundant reserves and the lower cost of on-shore domestic shale extraction has already curbed the appetite for large offshore oil projects, said Tom Floza, global head of energy analysis at the Oil Price Information Service in Wall, New Jersey.
"There's no overriding necessity to exploit northern Atlantic, eastern coast of the United States reserves anytime soon," Floza said. "It's almost as though the (oil) industry is calling for Atlantic exploration on principle as opposed to need."
But the need for Atlantic exploration isn’t based on U.S. demand, but rather global need, said Erik Milito, director of exploration and production policy at the American Petroleum Institute. He and Floza both said long-term demand for oil will increase over the next few decades.
“We have to be in a continuous process of finding oil and natural gas reserves,” Milito said.