Offshore Drilling

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SELC, partners intervene to defend Atlantic coast from seismic blasting More »

Update (5/12/17): President Trump filed his America First Offshore Energy Policy, initiating federal consideration of shelved permit applications for seismic testing in the Atlantic, the first step toward drilling. SELC awaits the board's response to our intervention in the case, challenging the justifications for this unneeded and unwanted undertaking.


Conservation groups today moved to intervene in an industry challenge to the Obama administration’s denial of permits for seismic testing in the Atlantic.

“The only reason to pursue seismic is to drill, and communities all along the Atlantic coast have made clear they don’t want this risky activity off their shores,” said Senior Attorney Catherine Wannamaker. “The Obama administration recognized that it should not permit the unnecessary harm caused by seismic testing – to important commercial and recreational fisheries, and to the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale – in a place where drilling has never occurred.”

The Obama administration denied the seismic permit applications following the removal of the Atlantic from the 2017-2022 offshore oil and gas leasing program. Recently, applicants for the denied seismic permits challenged that decision in the Department of Interior Board of Land Appeals, an administrative body within the department.

Used to locate and quantify potential oil and gas deposits, seismic testing involves firing blasts of air from large air guns toward the ocean floor for days or weeks at a time. Seismic blasts have been known to travel more than a thousand miles through the ocean, disorienting, hurting, deafening, or even killing nearby marine life. The Department of the Interior estimates that seismic testing along the East Coast would injure more than 130,000 marine mammals, including the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale. Seismic blasts also drive away fish, drastically cutting commercial fishing production. Studies have shown that seismic testing could potentially harm commercial and recreational fishing—central to coastal economies—by decreasing catch rates by as much as 80 percent.

When the Obama administration included the Southeast Atlantic coast in its initial proposed five-year oil and gas drilling plan, it met widespread and intense opposition by coastal communities and business and political leaders. More than 120 cities and towns along the Eastern seaboard expressed their opposition, including 100 percent of communities along South Carolina’s coast. These communities know that the only way to truly identify oil and gas deposits is to drill exploratory wells—exactly the type of activity caused the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010—and that the only reason to test for the presence of oil and gas is ultimately to drill for oil and gas production.

After considering impacts to fisheries, the military, local economies, and the environment, as well as the low price of oil, the Obama administration’s final five-year drilling plan for 2017–2022 excluded the Southeast Atlantic. The administration found that, with offshore leasing off the table in the Atlantic for the foreseeable future, seismic testing would cause undue harm, and waiting to allow seismic testing until drilling was imminent would allow technology to advance in ways likely to cause less damage to the marine environment.

SELC filed today’s brief on behalf of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, One Hundred Miles, and Defenders of Wildlife. The Natural Resources Defense Council and Center for Biological Diversity also moved to intervene in the industry challenge today.

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Defending Our Southern Coasts

Our Southern beaches are world famous destinations and our fisheries are among the most productive in the world. For 30 years, SELC has worked to protect our coastal resources and we remain a leading voice against opening the Southeast and new areas in the eastern Gulf of Mexico to offshore drilling.

Risks of Oil Drilling

In early 2015, the federal government announced it was considering opening up the Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia coasts to offshore oil and gas drilling, a significant shift in federal policy that would jeopardize the communities, jobs, and beloved beaches that are the very heart of our coastal states. 

The possibility of drilling off the coast galvanized locals who knew the dangers it posed to the area’s economy and environment. Altogether, more than 100 communities up and down the coast passed resolutions opposing offshore drilling and the harmful seismic testing that precedes it. 

In response to the incredible opposition from coastal communities, in 2016 the federal government removed the Atlantic from its offshore leasing plan, protecting all that is special about the Southeast coast.

Coastal Riches

The beautiful and biologically rich Southeast coastal areas and our Gulf Coast feature some of the most beloved places in the country, including the Chesapeake Bay, the Pamlico Sound, the ACE Basin, and Mobile Bay. Our coasts attract millions of tourists, anglers, and other visitors each year.

Tourism and fishing—both commercial and recreational—are the economic backbone of hundreds of communities along our coasts. 

Problematic Infrastructure

The environmental impacts of offshore drilling and its accompanying infrastructure and refineries onshore were well known even before the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Ocean rigs routinely spill and leak oil—and sometimes blow out.

Even without a major spill, the industrialization and infrastructure associated with drilling—the rigs, refineries, pipelines, traffic, and routine spills and accidents—would irreparably change our coastal communities and economies.

Seismic Testing 

Even though they are closely related, offshore drilling is regulated separately from seismic testing, a process of using loud airguns to test the ocean floor for fuels. So despite the recent decision to protect the Southeast from offshore drilling, the oil and gas industry continues to push seismic testing and the federal government is currently considering applications for seismic testing in the Atlantic.

Seismic testing is a means to one end: offshore oil and gas development, and it is widely opposed by residents, businesses, and local governments up and down the East Coast. There is absolutely no reason to allow seismic testing, harmful on its own, when the Atlantic coast has overwhelmingly rejected offshore drilling. SELC continues to work alongside coastal communities to ensure seismic testing does not move forward.

Not Worth the Risk

The South has too much to lose and too little to gain by opening up the Southeast coast and eastern Gulf to offshore oil drilling. Instead SELC advocates increased energy efficiency and development of clean, renewable energy sources like offshore wind and solar.

For more information and to get involved, visit ProtectOurCoastNow.com.