Dozens of House members seek halt in search for offshore oil and gas

Offshore drilling for oil and gas is a concern to a growing number of coastal advocates
Offshore drilling for oil and gas is a concern to a growing number of coastal advocates

U.S. Rep Mark Sanford and nearly three dozen fellow House members increased pressure Thursday to curtail the search for oil and gas off the Atlantic coast because of environmental and economic concerns.

In a letter Thursday to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s director, the House members said using seismic testing “is an enormously disruptive activity in the ocean’’ that could hurt both commercial fishing and endangered whales.

The letter said seismic testing is a first step toward eventually drilling for oil in a region of the country heavily dependent on fishing, tourism and recreation. Some recent studies already have indicated that fish and marine mammals will suffer, and those issues need to be taken into account with a more thorough study, the letter said.

“Seismic testing and oil drilling will put the coastal economy and way of life at risk, due to industrialization of the coast, daily impacts and regular spills from oil drilling activities, and possible catastrophic accidents,’’ such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that damaged the Gulf Coast five years ago, according to the letter from the bipartisan group.

Seismic testing involves the use of loud cannons to locate oil and gas deposits. Drilling supporters say there is no conclusive evidence that it kills marine life, but critics dispute that. Sonic cannons shoot sound waves louder than a jet engine through waters inhabited by marine life.

The federal government has approved the practice of seismic testing and is now entertaining plans from companies to explore parts of the Atlantic coast, including off South Carolina. Decisions on some of those plans could be made by the end of this year, said Hamilton Davis, energy issues director with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. A decision on whether to allow drilling could be more than a year away.

Thursday’s letter — co-authored by Sanford, a Republican, and U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat —is the latest in an increasingly contentious debate over whether to look for oil and gas in the Atlantic, where the practice had been banned until recently. The Obama administration has for the first time in three decades paved the way for the search for oil.

More than 80 cities and counties along the Atlantic Coast have formally opposed seismic testing and offshore drilling, even as many state and federal leaders — including S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C. — have voiced support for the offshore effort. In South Carolina, more than 20 local coastal governments have voted to oppose the drilling effort.

Haley press secretary Chaney Adams said the governor doesn’t want exploration to occur in a way that hurts the environment or the tourism industry. But Haley believes that “exploring offshore for energy is critical to our future because it means jobs, energy independence from other countries and security for our state."

The Sanford-Scott letter urges a new environmental review of “the full extent of the impacts — ranging from economic to ecological — caused by seismic air gun testing,’’ according to a news release from Sanford’s office. Those signing Thursday’s letter included U.S. Reps. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J.; Curt Clawson, R-Fla.; Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; and Walter Jones, R-N.C.

Sanford, who once supported offshore oil and gas exploration, said “the current basis for issuing seismic testing permits is incomplete. It does not take into account the long-term effects that seismic testing will have on marine life or the impact on the economy due to industrialization of the coast. Accordingly, we don’t think testing that could profoundly affect our coastal communities should be allowed to proceed based on an insufficient study.”

The Conservation League’s Davis said it’s “fantastic to see this bipartisan push against drilling and the seismic proposal coming out of Washington.’’