071317 Environment: SODA leader testifies before U.S. House panel
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Peg Howell, right, tells the panel about the potential impacts of drilling off South Carolina.

Environment: SODA leader testifies before U.S. House panel

By Nikki Best
Coastal Observer

A leader of the effort to block oil and gas drilling off the South Carolina coast went toe-to-toe with House Republicans in testimony Wednesday before the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

Peg Howell of North Litchfield was one of five witnesses at an oversight hearing held to evaluate offshore oil and gas development on the outer continental shelf. She was the only witness for the minority.

Howell was invited by the Democratic members of the House committee on Natural Resources at the suggestion of Oceana, a global conservation group. Her professional experience as a “company man” on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and activism with Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic (SODA) were factors in her invitation.

This hearing was spurred by three federal actions: Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s July 6 order to decrease waits in the process for offshore oil and gas leasing permits, President Trump’s executive order in April implementing an “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy” and the June 30 announcement that public comment was opening for a new five year, 2019-24, offshore oil and gas leasing program. The proposed five-year plan would replace the Obama administration’s 2017-22 program upon completion.

The subcommittee has 13 Republicans and 10 Democrats. None are from South Carolina.

Howell introduced her testimony in a five minute speech and submitted longer written remarks for the record. She told the subcommittee about the dangers of offshore drilling, oil leaks, that the United States is already the dominant supplier of oil in the world and that “seismic airgun blasting is not harmless.”

“The toughest part was the frustration in hearing people not provide accurate information and to not be able to respond to that,” she said after the hearing. “I kept making notes in front of me of things I wanted to say, but you can only speak when spoken to and that was frustrating.”

Rep. Scott Tipton, a Colorado Republican, asked Dr. James Knapp, an earth science professor at the University of South Carolina, “Would it be fair to conclude that those arguments [against seismic testing] are more emotional than scientific?”

Howell said she would have liked to answer. Instead, she listened quietly.

“I think there’s an element of it,” Knapp said. “I would say the body of evidence so far indicates that there is no long term damage to any of those marine communities.”

Her turn came later.

“There have been scientific peer-reviewed studies that have come out in recent years that there is harm, a 78 percent reef fish decline, as a result of seismic testing,” Howell said when she was asked about the subject by Rep. Darren Soto, a Florida Democrat. “But a very recent study that just came out says that zooplankton, the basis of our marine food web, is killed at a distance of three-quarters of a mile away.”

William Brown, chief environmental officer at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management wrote in 2014 that, “To date, there has been no documented scientific evidence of noise from air guns used in geological and geophysical seismic activities adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities.” Although this letter is still regularly cited as current information, newer studies and testimony from scientists has negated this conclusion.

Douglas Nowachek, an expert on marine ecology and bioacoustics, presented testimony to the same subcommittee in July 2015. “Given the transcendent importance of sound and hearing to many ocean life forms, noise that is out of the ordinary, that is louder than the normal background levels of sound, can disrupt the normal behavior of ocean animals,” he said. “The best available science confirms this point. Seismic airguns generate the most intense sounds that humans put in the ocean short of explosives.”

Nowacheck called for a revision of BOEM’s stance on the issue.

Howell’s testimony also cited a scientific article that was published last month in Nature Ecology and Evolution on the subject. “Dr. Knapp was not providing credence to the scientific studies demonstrating impact,” she said after the hearing. “There is no way for marine life to escape seismic testing.”

Howell also got the chance to challenge data presented by Rep. Garrett Graves, a Louisiana Republican, who presented information about his experience with drilling. He shared a graph that showed a decline in oil-related spillage compiled by the National Research Council. It showed that 62 percent of oil releases are from natural seeps, 33 percent is actually from oil consumption and 4 percent is from the transportation of oil. “There were comments made earlier about the dangerous pipelines and other transportation aspects,” he said. “Four percent is spilled from that and only 1 percent is tied back to actual oil extraction.”

Graves also cited NOAA data that his home state harvested 1.07 billion pounds of commercial seafood in 2015, even with offshore oil rigs in place. South Carolina only harvested 14.4 million pounds without rigs, he said. “Certainly I would argue that while our fishers are probably better than in South Carolina, even that factor would indicate that we have substantial ecological productivity in south Louisiana,” he said.

Graves went on to say that the United States is purchasing oil from hostile countries and that action indicates the U.S. is funding its own enemies. “What do you think they do with that money,” Graves said. “They come and challenge our sovereignty, challenge our values and challenge our way of life.” He told Howell, “feel free to respond.”

“Wonderful. Let me respond to your last point, import of oil from hostile countries,” she said during the hearing. “The imports are coming from hostile countries like Canada and Mexico. Last time I checked most of the oil and gas that was being imported was coming from friendly countries, not hostile countries.”

Graves responded by listing Venezuela and Saudi Arabia in the top 10 countries oil is imported from.

“The reason for these imports, as you know, has to do with the refineries on the Gulf of Mexico, which are designed to process heavy crudes,” Howell said. “Heavy crudes are not what we are producing in the United States, so until we change the refinery mix in the United States we have to continue to import to run those, or your south Louisiana friends will be out of work.”

Howell went on to combat Graves’ claims regarding oil spillage. “The Atlantic coast is the not the home of natural oil seeps,” she said and reiterated her purpose to advocate for the Atlantic coast. The oil seeps referenced are from the Gulf of Mexico and the California coast, she said. “I think if you knew the geology associated with that graph you’d have a better understanding.”

Following Howell’s comments, Graves’ allotted speaking time had elapsed and he concluded by saying, “I was hoping I was going to be able to correct the record rather than having more distortions I need to correct again.”

“Half truths are not distortions,” Howell said.

Howell was not called on again during the roughly two hour meeting. She felt the hearing was exasperating, but that her presence there was a positive one. “I think it made a difference for the people who are fighting this fight,” she said.

It was her first time before a congressional panel. “Giving birth to a 10-pound, 3-ounce boy was easier than getting ready for this hearing,” she said. “I learned a lot about how Congress works.”

The public comment period for the Trump administration’s 2019-24 offshore leasing program will be open until Aug. 16. The public comment period for seismic testing in the South Atlantic has been extended through July 20.

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