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Offshore drilling: Development officials visit Louisiana oil port

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Director Bill Crowther and chairman Tim Tilley of the Georgetown County Alliance for Economic Development toured the port in Louisiana that handles the logistics of most oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico this month to see how the Port of Georgetown stacks up.

They visited Port Fourchon, a former shrimping and fishing village on the southern tip of Lafourche Parish on the Gulf of Mexico that has become “the most significant energy port in the country,” Crowther said. “I don’t know that we picked up anything in particular on the trip, but we did learn about Port Fourchon. Its operations are pretty tremendous. If there’s going to be exploration off the coast, we’d love for the Port of Georgetown to be in position to take advantage of it.”

The first step in presenting Georgetown’s port as a potential site for launching energy exploration equipment would be dredging the harbor to a depth of 27 feet. The state has set aside $18 million over the next three years, and the State Ports Authority approved an additional $5 million for dredging at Georgetown. County voters will decide on an additional 1-cent sales tax in November that would set aside $6 million for the port dredging as its top priority. The remainder of the $33 million needed to dredge the harbor is being sought by Rep. Tom Rice in the U.S. House and Sen. Lindsey Graham in the U.S. Senate. Georgetown didn’t have the annual tonnage to qualify for federal dredging funds, but changes in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act relaxed the requirements for small ports.

Crowther said Georgetown compares favorably with Port Fourchon in that both have access to an airport with a suitable landing strip. “Logistically,” Crowther said, “we line up pretty well. “We’re in the middle of the area under consideration. It makes a lot of sense. They don’t want to be in a big port like Charleston or Norfolk.”

The search for oil and gas deposits in the mid- and south-Atlantic from the Delaware Bay to just south of Cape Canaveral, Fla., moved ahead last week when the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved seismic testing that involves shooting sonar blasts off the ocean floor. The approval is a prelude to potential offshore drilling in the Atlantic, though that is blocked through 2017 under President Obama’s five-year offshore drilling plan.

Some restrictions do exist under the plan, federal officials said. Companies conducting the seismic tests will be subject to scrutiny by protected species observers, multiple seismic surveys can’t occur in the same space simultaneously, and some critical migratory areas for the endangered north Atlantic right whale will be off-limits.

Environmental groups have said seismic airguns deafen and scatter marine life, eventually leading to death from fleeing habitats or injury. The groups, along with some Congressional Democrats, argue that allowing the activity would threaten tourism and commercial fishing.

“We are opposed to the seismic testing for several reasons,” said Nancy Cave of the North Coast Office of the Coastal Conservation League. “Government findings say over 200,000 marine mammals will likely die from the seismic testing. It’s a huge experiment. Nobody quite knows what the impacts will be. Another concern is that we will never know what the impacts are because it is being done by a private company for a private company that has no obligation to notify the public of the results.”

Cave said South Carolina beaches are too valuable as tourist destinations to put at risk by drilling for oil. Louisiana’s coast is not one to compare with South Carolina, she said. “They don’t have a lot of beaches where their oil infrastructure and refineries are,” she said. “Our whole coast is a beach, a different geology and different geography.”

Conflicting with the Interior Department’s approval of seismic testing for oil and gas deposits along the Atlantic coast is the new federal designation of 685 miles of beaches from Mississippi to North Carolina and 300,000 square miles of ocean off the Gulf and Atlantic coasts as critical nesting and roaming habitat for threatened loggerhead sea turtles.

The joint ruling by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week is the largest critical habitat designation in U.S. history, environmentalists say.

The announcement followed a lawsuit filed last year by environmental groups to require the government to protect the area. Scientists said the area is home to 70,000 to 90,000 nesting sites per year and comprises 84 percent of all known nesting areas for the large sea turtles.

The designated area includes some reproductive areas directly off nesting beaches from North Carolina through Mississippi, and breeding habitat in Florida, as well as 88 nesting beaches in six states which account for 48 percent of an estimated 1,531 miles of coastal beach shoreline used by loggerheads.

Protection doesn’t limit public access to the designated areas but requires that any federal activity in the waters off nesting sites, such as drilling or fisheries, must be further scrutinized for possible impact on the turtles.

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