New Protections Place Atlantic Canyons Off-limits to Offshore Drilling

While Areas off the Virginia Coast Now Protected, Overwhelming Coastal Opposition to Atlantic Drilling Continues to Grow

Charlottesville, VA—Today the Obama administration announced that it would permanently protect 3.8 million acres of the Atlantic Ocean from offshore oil and gas development, removing 31 Atlantic canyons from any offshore drilling activity, including the Norfolk Canyon offshore Chesapeake Bay.

Earlier this year following strong opposition from coastal communities and businesses, the administration scrapped a controversial plan to open the Atlantic Ocean, from Virginia to Georgia, to offshore drilling—and while today’s announcement adds extra protection for these specific Virginia areas, opposition to drilling anywhere in the Southeast has only grown stronger in recent months.

“While this is encouraging news for this important area off the coast of Virginia, the rest of the Southeast coast is just as environmentally and economically valuable and deserving of protection,” said Sierra Weaver, leader of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s coast and wetlands program. “The message from coastal communities and businesses could not be louder or clearer: we do not want offshore drilling. Not just for the next five years but for all time.”

More than 120 coastal cities and towns from New Jersey to Florida and hundreds of businesses, trade groups, and tourism associations have passed resolutions opposing Atlantic drilling and seismic testing. Just this week the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, representing over 35,000 business and 500,000 commercial fishing families, asked the Obama administration to permanently protect all Atlantic waters.

“While today’s decision provides important protections for some valuable marine areas, the opposition to offshore drilling stretches far beyond those places,” said Weaver. “Local communities will continue to fight to protect the entire coast.”

In addition to opposition from local communities, the decision to remove the Atlantic Ocean from leasing reflected concerns from the Department of Defense about how drilling would impact military activities, as well as economic concerns about the risks to tourism and fishing. Even without a catastrophic accident, the industrialization and infrastructure associated with drilling—the rigs, refineries, pipelines, and traffic—would irreparably change coastal communities and the thriving tourism economy.

A 2015 report from the Center for the Blue Economy showed that the oil and gas industry’s promises of revenue and jobs were greatly exaggerated—and far surpassed by the existing coastal jobs, based on tourism and fishing, that could be jeopardized if drilling moves forward.

Countering oil industry’s claims, a SELC analysis found that drilling infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico drives away tourism, with an average decrease of about 50 percent in tourism dollars in counties and parishes where oil rigs and other drilling infrastructure are prevalent.

The Southeast Coast, which has never seen industrial gas development, is home to dozens of National Wildlife Refuges, National Seashores, and ecologically important marine areas—including the areas now protected from seismic testing, used to survey the ocean floor for oil and gas deposits. Local communities have opposed seismic testing as a prelude to the drilling they’ve rejected, while also voicing concerns about its significant impacts on marine life.

“Up to this point, the process has clearly reflected the will of the people,” said Weaver. “Any future attempt to open this area to drilling will go against the hundreds of communities, thousands of businesses, and millions of residents that have spoken out against gambling with their coasts.”

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The Southern Environmental Law Center is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. With nine offices across the region (Charlottesville, VA; Chapel Hill, NC; Atlanta, GA; Charleston, SC; Washington, DC; Birmingham, AL; Nashville, TN; Asheville, NC; and Richmond, VA), SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect the South’s natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region. www.SouthernEnvironment.org