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SC Rep. Joe Cunningham blows air horn to sound alarm about offshore oil work

Joe Cunningham Airhorn.jpg

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, gave a blast from an air horn Thursday to demonstrate how loud offshore seismic testing can be. U.S. House Water, Oceans and Wildlife subcommittee.

U.S. Rep Joe Cunningham made it loud and clear Thursday: He blew an air horn to demonstrate how disruptive seismic blast testing offshore can be for sea creatures.

After people in a U.S. House subcommittee hearing recoiled and held their ears, Cunningham, D-S.C., asked Chris Oliver, and assistant administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, how much louder he thought the blasts would be.

Oliver said he didn't know.

"16,000 times louder," Cunningham said.

The ear-shattering stunt was an attention-getter, a departure from the usually staid and low-key hearings. It left fellow Water, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee members grinning. 

"I can confirm that was LOUD," Rep. Don Beyer, D-Virginia, tweeted shortly after.

The Thursday blast followed an admission on Wednesday by Walter Cruickshank, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management acting director — under questioning by Cunningham — that drilling for oil and natural gas is not safe from spills.

The developments shook earlier industry claims that work can be handled without undue risks. Drilling proponents, such as the American Petroleum Institute, have long advocated the activities are reliable, safe and good for the economy.

"Marine seismic surveys are a critical tool for identifying valuable energy resources with high precision — they reduce the number of wells drilled," said institute spokesman Reid Porter on Thursday. The surveys are designed and conducted to mitigate safety and environmental impacts, he said.

“I’m a former ocean engineer," Cunningham, said, "but it doesn’t take an expert to know that seismic air gun blasting is an incredibly disruptive process for marine life that depend on sound to communicate and navigate."

Five companies currently are in the process to be granted federal permits to conduct seismic testing off South Carolina, with a decision on the permits expected by April. The work, sought by the Trump administration, is widely opposed on the coast.

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The issue pits a concern for the environment and South Carolina's multibillion-dollar tourism industry, against potential new revenue and jobs.

Seismic blasts have been shown to disrupt and injury sea creatures such as whales.

Cunningham, who was elected to the coastal 1st District seat last November, won office largely on his opposition to seismic testing and drilling for oil and gas resources offshore.

Cunningham asked Oliver after the air horn demonstration if he thought South Carolinians deserve a right to determine what happens off our shorelines. Oliver agreed.

On Wednesday, Cruickshank acknowledged the risks of offshore drilling leaks in testimony before the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee.

"There are risks for moving oil from any location to any other location," Cruickshank said. He agreed the risk is heightened under threat of hurricanes.

Asked about oil still leaking from underneath a Gulf of Mexico drilling platform after Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Cruickshank said, "the hurricane did cause that platform to topple and sever from its wells."

Cruickshank also said that, while South Carolina has "port facilities" that could be adapted to handle any fossil fuels pulled from offshore, that new refineries as well as pipelines would have to built. Most leaks during storms come from onshore facilities, he said.

The risks, Cruickshank said, are analyzed and mitigated for during the work.

"It’s clear that both onshore and offshore infrastructure for oil and gas exploration pose serious risks for oil spills, especially in the event of a hurricane," Cunningham said. Spills "could irrevocably damage the tourism, recreation, and fishing industries we depend upon in the Lowcountry," he said.

Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

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