Press Release | April 29, 2010

SELC Highlights Concern Over Offshore Seismic Surveys

The U.S. Minerals and Management Service (MMS) is holding a public hearing in Norfolk today as it starts the process of reviewing the environmental impacts of conducting seismic studies that would be used to support offshore energy development in the Mid- and South-Atlantic. The studies would lay the groundwork for the Administration's recently announced plan to open this area for the first time ever to offshore oil and gas drilling.

The Southern Environmental Law Center is deeply concerned about potential drilling in the Atlantic, which poses one of the greatest threats to the coastal resources that SELC has worked to protect for almost 25 years. SELC attorneys Marirose Pratt and Deborah Murray will be in Norfolk to voice these concerns during today's hearing. The threats from offshore drilling have been brought sharply into focus in recent days with the tragedy unfolding in the Gulf due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The amount of oil and gas in the Mid- and South-Atlantic region (from Maryland to northern Florida) is estimated to contain less than two months supply of oil and just six months supply of natural gas nationally, according to the most recent government estimates.

Virginia is the only Atlantic state included in the MMS's current 5-year plan for offshore drilling. The designated lease sale area off the coast is thought to contain just six days of oil and 18 days of natural gas at current consumption rates nationally. This is not worth the tremendous long-term risk to the commercial fisheries – valued at more than $145.5 million in Virginia in 2008 – and the vibrant tourism industry that support the state's coastal economies and way of life.

One of the first steps to oil and gas drilling is surveying for potential reserves using seismic technology, which itself causes significant environmental harm. The powerful air guns used to transmit seismic signals are known to significantly disrupt normal breeding and feeding behaviors in fish, reducing commercial catch rates, as well as in mammals, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale. While seismic surveying may be necessary on a one-time basis to site renewable energy projects, surveying for oil and gas is an ongoing process that involves repeated seismic testing across vast areas of the ocean floor, resulting in exponentially more severe impacts. SELC is opposed to such repeated and widespread seismic surveying.

At a minimum, SELC advocates limiting the location of surveys to areas with high wind-energy potential, a much more sustainable energy source with significantly less overall environmental impact. Moreover, if MMS were to proceed, it must require that the most ecologically sensitive areas be off-limits to seismic testing including calving grounds and migratory corridors for marine mammals, and deepwater ecosystems that support productive commercial fisheries. Additionally, the agency must reverse its current stance and ensure that the resulting information from any seismic activity is made fully available to the public.

The Southern Environmental Law Center believes that instead of putting our exceptional coastal resources and communities at tremendous risk in order to extract a minimal supply of carbon-based fuels, we should pursue strong public policies that promote energy efficiency, including reducing transportation fuel consumption through improved vehicle mileage and implementing better land-use development patterns.

“Opening the Atlantic to oil and gas drilling not only puts some of our nation's most treasured natural resources, like the Chesapeake Bay, at risk but it diverts attention from where we should be focused – on increasing energy efficiency and developing renewable energy resources, such as wind, that would generate clean power and real jobs for Virginians,” said Marirose Pratt, associate attorney with SELC's Charlottesville office.

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