No oil for now: Mid-Atlantic removed from survey/drilling plans

Date Published: 
March 18, 2016

A million comments seem to have done the trick. After receiving that much feedback, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced this week that the Atlantic Ocean has been removed from upcoming plans for oil and gas development.

After introducing the Atlantic Ocean as a possible site for seismic testing and future oil and natural gas drilling, the Department received enough input in 2015 to warrant removing the Atlantic Ocean from the Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2017-2022.

“We heard from many corners that now is not the time to offer oil and gas leasing off the Atlantic Coast,” stated Secretary Sally Jewell of the U.S. Department of the Interior. “When you factor in conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities, it simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with any lease sales in the coming five years.”

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is still working through the approval process for its Five-Year Program, which addresses the size and schedule of potential oil and gas lease sales in U.S. waters to best meet national energy needs.

As part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, BOEM is tasked with managing the sale and responsible development of off-shore mineral energy resources on the outer-continental shelf. It published the Draft Proposed Program in January of 2015 — the first stage of lease sale schedule development.

The Department has now excluded the Atlantic for several reasons, including “current market dynamics, strong local opposition and conflicts with competing commercial and military ocean uses.”

The BOEM is still considering 10 potential sales in the Gulf of Mexico and three potential sales off the coast of Alaska in its Proposed Program, which was released on March 15.

The Pacific Ocean wasn’t even considered, based partly “on the long-standing position of the Pacific coast states in opposition to oil and gas development off their coast,” the Department stated.

The move doesn’t eliminate the possibility that the Atlantic Ocean will ever go into oil production.

U.S. Rep. John Carney (D-Del.) called the news a “sigh of relief for folks in Delaware.”

Carney has signed multiple letters and an op-ed stating his concerns about the program.

“This proposal put our state and our neighbors at risk of suffering the same devastation we’ve seen time and again from oil spills around the world. It’s just not worth it,” Carney stated. “I’m glad the Administration heard our concerns, and I applaud them on the reversal of this decision.”

Conflict resolution could be needed

There is a risk to oil/gas drilling. But U.S. waters already have programs that are successful most days of the week.

BOEM officials stated that more time is needed to reduce the conflict between the Atlantic’s many uses and oil/gas development. The East Coast already relies on the well-establish economies of ocean-dependent tourism, commercial and recreational fishing, and commercial shipping and transportation.

If money talks, then established money talks loudly. In just the Mid-Atlantic Planning Area, commercial fishing could be worth “more than $1.5 billion in total value added gross domestic product (GDP),” according to the BOEM. Ocean-dependent tourism accounts for more than $6.5 billion.

On one level, people on the Atlantic Coast are just unfamiliar with oil production, BOEM officials suggested. After all, BOEM manages about 5,000 active leases on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). The majority of those 26 million acres are in the Gulf of Mexico.

“While the offshore oil and gas industry co-exists with commercial fishing and ocean-dependent tourism in the GOM [Gulf of Mexico], that relationship has evolved over many decades,” the content of the Proposed Program stated. “Similarly in Alaska, oil and gas development activity in state waters has initiated the co-existence of the oil and gas activities and other uses.

“In the Atlantic, however, there has been little history of such co-existence. Rather, the prospect of introducing into the coastal communities of the Atlantic the impacts of oil and gas development and the impacts of accompanying supporting infrastructure, along with the inherent risks (despite the important safety improvements that have been implemented), was met with significant opposition from the citizens and local officials that reside in those communities,” it stated.

The state of things

There is currently no oil or gas program in the Atlantic Ocean. The most recent lease sales were held in 1983, but those led to no oil/gas production.

“Domestic oil and gas production will remain strong without the additional production from a potential lease sale in the Atlantic,” the program report stated.

Whenever it was mapped, the single Atlantic site could have produced a fraction of a 1 percent of U.S. oil or natural gas supplies. Nationwide, “In 2015, OCS oil and gas leases accounted for about 16 percent of domestic oil production and 5 percent of domestic natural gas production.”

Although gas prices may be low now, “In considering the long-run U.S. national security interests, the Atlantic oil and gas resources could become more valuable at some point in the future,” the report warned.

Production of U.S. crude oil and natural gas have increased in recent years, helping reduce American reliance on oil imports.

Seismic testing is still on the table

Although the change from the draft proposal is a victory for opponents of drilling, it doesn’t officially take seismic testing off the table.

As of March 15, the BOEM still had eight pending applications from private companies just to study the Atlantic Ocean, not to drill. Five of those include seismic testing off the Delmarva Peninsula. Three more applications have been withdrawn, and one less-invasive permit was approved in 2015 but has since expired.

Seismic testing is the most thorough, but arguably most invasive, method for underwater surveying. Ships shoot airguns that can pierce deep underground. By traveling over hundreds of square miles, those early applicants would just be looking for zones likely to have gas production. They don’t know the Atlantic’s best spots for oil production yet.

Between their results and federal research, the BOEM could create an underwater lease site. Gas companies could bid on that site, and the winner could be permitted to get rights to that site, later drilling if oil production is deemed worth the investment. (Updated information on all permit applications is found at www.boem.gov/Currently-submitted-Atlantic-OCS-Region-Permits.)

“Companies may have little incentive to conduct seismic and other G&G [geological and geophysical] studies unless there is the likelihood of lease sales in the program area,” BOEM officials admitted. So including the Atlantic could have provided an incentive for the industry to keep studying the area, “which will lead to more information that could be utilized to refine future estimates of potential resource endowments.”

But “with offshore drilling off the table in the Atlantic, there is absolutely no reason to risk the damage that would be caused by seismic airguns in that area,” stated Jacqueline Savitz, of the international ocean conservation group Oceana, which opposed the Atlantic sites. “Seismic airgun permits are still being pursued in an area of the Atlantic that is twice the size of California, stretching from Delaware to Florida.

“With no drilling plans in sight, there is absolutely no reason to put more than 100,000 marine mammals in harm’s way.”

Speaking up

“The people of Maryland and Delaware should be proud of today’s announcement,” said Caroline Wood, Mid-Atlantic campaign organizer for Oceana.

“From oyster farming to fishing to crabbing to whale watching to tourist beach towns, coastal livelihoods were at risk,” Wood said of the Chesapeake and Atlantic coasts, “and the citizens of these states not only understood their role in this movement, they worked diligently and passionately to express their opposition. This is an example of true grassroots organizing and a well-won victory.”

The Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT) knocked on the door of more than one municipality, encouraging town councils to address the issue and sent statements of opposition to the BOEM. (Bethany Beach was scheduled to take up just such a resolution at its town council meeting on Friday, March 18.)

Although only 40 municipalities submitted comments during comments period, more than 100 have officially opposed seismic testing and/or oil drilling in the Atlantic. That includes Dewey Beach, Fenwick Island, Lewes, Milton, Rehoboth Beach and Ocean City, Md.

Commenters ranged from Virginia garden clubs to industry experts. That includes the Delaware Natural Resources & Environmental Control, scientists, Chambers of Commerce, fishery management councils and many more.

Comments ranged from the fears of an oil spill, which would impact the health of local wildlife and economies, to the Wallops Flight Facility’s maintaining a safe offshore launch hazard area in nearby waters.

Although the governors of Virginia and North Carolina expressed interest in a lease sale in the Atlantic, they had expressed hope for a revenue-sharing program to offset the risks. But U.S. law currently forbids that revenue sharing.

On a broader scale, the move to limit gas production is an important step in mitigating climate change, according to Oceana.

“This is a courageous decision that begins the shift to a new energy paradigm, where clean energy replaces fossil fuels, and where we can avoid the worst impacts of decades of our carbon dioxide emissions,” stated Savitz.

The entire 279-page document of the “2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil & Gas Leasing Proposed Program” is online at www.boem.gov/2017-2022-Proposed-Program-Decision.

The public has 90 days to comment on this week’s Proposed Program and 45 days to comment on the accompanying Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS).

After that, the BOEM will publish the Proposed Final Program and PEIS. Once Congress and the president have commented on those documents, the final Five-Year Program will be announced.

More information and maps are available online at www.boem.gov/Five-Year-Program.