Offshore drilling a bad bargain for S.C.

In a June 23, 2010 file photo, crews work to clean up oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill washed ashore at Pensacola Beach in Pensacola Fla. (AP Photo/ Michael Spooneybarger, File)

BY STEVE GILBERT

What a relief to read Senator Chip Campsen’s recent op-ed column. Finally, a legislator that sees the reality of how oil and gas development would change the coast that we love.

As the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management moves forward to process and implement its five-year leasing plan that includes the Mid- and South Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf, it is critical that citizens of South Carolina, particularly those who enjoy and whose livelihood depend on our coast, are given a clearer picture of what oil development would mean to our coast.

Recent pro-drilling op-ed pieces have talked about currently safe oil and gas technology and promises of a state economic game changer, with state windfalls in the billions of dollars and jobs in the hundreds of thousands. It is somewhat ironic that one of these op-ed pieces recommends that this should be “... a process and evaluation based on facts and not fear and misinformation.”

The misinformation here is the touting of large numbers of jobs and state revenue that may not occur at all, while not seriously talking about the risks to existing state coastal natural resources and linked tourism and fisheries economic benefits, the loss of which may economically, aesthetically, and recreationally offset any potential drilling benefits.

Several competent geologists familiar with the geology of our offshore areas are very doubtful that new seismic testing will reveal any major deposits, perhaps with the exception of methane hydrates in deep ice deposits, a highly volatile compound whose extraction is very tricky. The job projections are based on development of major finds that are unlikely. The state revenue is largely based on convincing the federal government to apply revenue sharing of oil leases with the states, which is unlikely in these times of federal budget austerity. Although there is an existing program for revenue sharing with “affected” Gulf Coast states, passed in the 1996 Gulf Of Mexico Energy Security Act, it is important to understand that this was meant to be compensatory mitigation for oil industry damage to coastal resources and resultant economic losses. As a result, expenditure of such funds is limited to coastal conservation, restoration and hurricane protection.

As a scientist, I prefer to characterize the comments made by anti-drilling conservationists as risk analysis, rather than “fear.” That said, the science is pretty clear on the risks involved in both exploration and development, and there is great reason to fear the impacts on marine resources. Recently, 75 prominent marine scientists signed a letter to the president with their united concern that seismic oil and gas exploration along the U.S. Mid- and South Atlantic coasts represents a significant threat to marine life throughout the region.

Even greater risks to marine and coastal resources are anticipated should further exploration and development ensue. It is not just the risk of great unrecoverable disasters such as the BP Horizon spill that are at issue, but also the continuous, chronic cumulative small spills, leaks and insults to coastal ecosystems that are of concern. Louisiana is a great case study. According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center, in 2014, Louisiana, a state with major oil production and transportation, had over 3,000 reported oil spills with volumes ranging up to 11.8 million gallons; and this is in recognition that 25 percent of oil spills go unreported. Canal dredging to accommodate pipelines and industry vessels has devastated tidal wetlands of Louisiana. As Sen. Campsen points out, oil and gas development would lead to the industrialization of our beautiful coast. Do we really want oil and gas development with these types of consequences on our coast?

In practice, “responsible” and “safe” oil and gas exploration and development is oxymoronic. Since the tragic BP Horizon disaster, no new safety measures have been implemented in the Gulf. The reality of the situation is expressed in the following quote from retired U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who was in charge of oil cleanup in the Gulf: “There is no risk-free way to extract hydrocarbons from the earth.”

Despite industry rhetoric, seismic impacts are far from benign. Our public resources will be impacted and yet the public will never get to know the results from the exploration as all resultant data is proprietary and will not be released to the public or the state. Since we, the public, will get no decision-making information from the seismic surveys and have grave misgivings about what actual development and mining would do to our resources and current coastal way of life, we should end this threat by stopping it before it begins.

It is important to do everything in our power to prevent moving forward with the initial seismic testing phase of oil and gas development. Now if only Sen. Campsen can get the rest of our state legislators to recognize these realities.

Steve Gilbert is special projects manager for the South Carolina Wildlife Federation. He lives on James Island.