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Unveiled yesterday, President Obama’s permanent ban on oil and gas development in the Atlantic Ocean does not extend south of Norfolk, Virginia. Reactions from drilling opponents in the Southeast ranged from qualified praise to disappointment.
The ban covers 3.8 million acres of deep sea canyons in the northern and mid-Atlantic as well as the bulk of the Arctic Ocean. But it stops short of the areas off the coast of the Carolinas and Georgia that oil companies and a coalition of governors have been pushing to drill since 2011.
“While this is encouraging news for this important area off the coast of Virginia,” said Sierra Weaver of the Southern Environmental Law Center, “the rest of the Southeast coast is just as environmentally and economically valuable and deserving of protection.”
“The good news is that the waters off [and to the north] of Virginia are largely protected from offshore drilling,” said Frank Knapp, the head of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce and co-founder of an alliance representing more than 12,000 businesses along the Atlantic Coast.
“The bad news is that this area represents far less than 10 percent of the total Atlantic Coast area oil companies might want to drill in the future,” Knapp said. “We got very little of what we were trying to do. It’s really a shock and a disappointment.”
For months, drilling foes had been urging the president to employ a little-used provision of a 1953 oil and gas law to prevent drilling in the entire Atlantic Ocean. They ramped up their campaign after the surprise election of Donald Trump, a staunch supporter of more oil and gas development.
Yesterday’s action doesn’t impact the administration’s earlier move to bar oil and gas drilling in a stretch of southern Atlantic Ocean until 2022. That decision responded to pleas from hundreds of businesses along the southern coast, military leaders and a bipartisan array of local elected officials.
“I’m disappointed, but I don’t feel that we failed,” said Billy Keyserling, the mayor of Beaufort, South Carolina, one of the over 120 counties and cities who opposed drilling. “I don’t consider it a step back. It’s not the step forward we wanted.”
Seismic permits still pending
With drilling still a possibility for the southern Atlantic within the next decade, advocates say the stakes are raised in their fight against seismic testing, the drilling exploration process many scientists say can harm and kill whales, dolphins, and other marine life.
“It’s a hideous process for anything living in the ocean,” said Knapp. “Every coastal community in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and even in Florida are now at risk for the negative impact of this process on our tourism, recreation and commercial fishing.”
As many as eight seismic testing permit applications are still pending with Obama’s Department of Interior, which offered no clues about when or whether the applications would be approved.
“This decision does not impact seismic activity,” said Jessica Kershaw, a spokeswoman for the Department, “and I have no additional information regarding timing of seismic permits.”
‘Now we have to worry’
Many fear a Trump administration and the GOP-led Congress will move aggressively to abandon the temporary drilling bans in the southern Atlantic, either by reversing the current plan or allowing drilling after 2022.
“Now we have to worry about the next five-year plan,” said Knapp. “Now we have to worry about the next Congress coming in to unravel the current five-year plan. It could come a lot sooner than we think.”
Extending Atlantic coast protections southward, said Zachary Keith, lead organizer with the North Carolina Sierra Club, will require “remaining vigilant during the next administration to protect all our coastal communities.”
Mayor Keyserling of Beaufort said the Trump administration’s expected push to drill in the Atlantic could strengthen and “rev up the movement.”
“I anticipate that those who are opposed are going to be much more aggressive, better organized and realize that they’re in it for the long term,” he said.
‘Coastal opposition remains committed’
The Obama administration did not elaborate on its rationale for banning drilling only off the coast of Norfolk and northward, but Kershaw said it was not “a statement on whether oil and gas drilling would be appropriate in other areas.”
Kershaw said the southern Atlantic was withdrawn from the 2017 to 2022 drilling plan for many reasons, “including strong local opposition” and “conflicts with other ocean uses” such as fishing and tourism.
Advocates say those factors won’t go away.
“Coastal opposition remains committed to ensuring that offshore drilling activities never take place in the Atlantic Ocean,” said Dustin Cranor, a spokesman for Oceana.
“The message from coastal communities and businesses could not be louder or clearer: we do not want offshore drilling,” said Weaver of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Not just for the next five years, but for all time.”