081017 Offshore oil: Opponents press governor to comment on lease plan
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Offshore oil: Opponents press governor to comment on lease plan

By Nikki Best
Coastal Observer

Opponents of oil and gas drilling off the South Carolina coast are making a push for public comments before next week’s deadline on a new federal leasing plan.

More than 100 residents came to the Waccamaw Library this week to hear a presentation from Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic (SODA). That followed on the heels of a standing-room-only crowd at an event in Charleston.

Peg Howell, a member of the SODA leadership, called for public comment on the new Outer Continental Shelf plan, and for help from the public requesting Gov. Henry McMaster submit a comment to Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on behalf of the state. The comment period closes Aug. 17.

“This is our legacy,” Howell said. “Offshore drilling is a forever decision and we need Gov. McMaster to tell BOEM his stance.”

McMaster has said he opposes drilling off the South Carolina coast, and opponents say that going on the record with BOEM could result in South Carolina being removed from the next leasing plan.

SODA remains vocal in opposition to offshore drilling and seismic testing. The group was responsible for organizing residents and municipalities to speak out against the coastal threat in 2015 and 2016, when then-President Obama was considering the South Atlantic for leasing. The Obama administration stayed the leasing ideas and placed restrictions on the Carolina coasts for the duration of its 2017-2022 OCS plan. That all changed just over a year later when President Trump issued an executive order spurring an “American Energy First” approach to the fossil fuel market, and reopened all federal waters for offshore leasing. That executive action then paved the way for the planning and creation of a 2019-2024 OCS plan.

“This is our first opportunity to comment on this new program,” Howell said. The program would open up 90,000 square miles of seismic testing lines. That’s enough mileage to wrap the earth more than three and a half times, she said. “That’s a heck of a lot of seismic.”

Mark Collins, owner and operator of Blue Wave Adventures Dolphin Cruise in Murrells Inlet, is worried about the lasting effects of seismic testing. This was his first time attending a public SODA meeting. “I’m extremely concerned about this and for the dolphins,” he said of seismic testing.

Collins, who said he is “no scientist,” already notices changing behaviors in the dolphins from the beach renourishment projects going on at Surfside Beach. “They have these two big pumps and two big ships out there making quite a bit of noise and in the last couple of weeks I’m starting to see some grouping of the dolphins,” he said. “I can’t say scientifically it’s something, but I’m out there every day looking at it. I’m seeing different behavior just from that activity and the noise that that makes in the water.”

All data collected through seismic testing is proprietary. It belongs to the company that collects it and is not shared in full with the federal government, let alone the states. “The data that goes to BOEM isn’t actually the raw data. BOEM gets an interpretive report,” Howell said. “When you hear certain elected officials say the reason they support seismic because they want to know what’s out there, the answer is, they will not know what’s out there and the only way anybody knows what’s out there is by drilling a well.”

Seismic testing is only testing. The interpretation of data gathered is not a certainty of oil or natural gas location. Two years ago, after years of seismic testing, Shell Oil spent $7 billion and drilled an empty well in the Arctic. Off the coast of eastern Canada, Shell has drilled 127 wells and made 23 significant discoveries since 1967. “Even Shell does not know what’s out there based on seismic alone,” Howell said. “You must drill.”

If all the seismic testing permits were approved, and time lines were combined, the noise would go on nonstop for two and a half years. “It’s like the smoke alarm going off in your house, for over two and a half years and you can’t stop it,” she said. “You’d have to go to Las Vegas to not hear it anymore.”

The amount of seismic testing proposed across the permits that would use the 90,000 square miles of the Atlantic Ocean is unprecedented, Howell said. “People will say they’ve been shooting seismic forever in the Gulf of Mexico, but never has there been a request to shoot this much seismic at the same time in the Gulf of Mexico or anywhere around the world,” she said. “We are really putting our ocean life at risk.”

Collins is already familiar with how oil companies work. He grew up in “an oil patch in Oklahoma.” His father was in the business. “I’m very familiar with their shenanigans,” he said.

If decision makers could see and hear the life under the ocean’s surface maybe they would change their tune, Collins said. “I’d love to take them out and find a group of dolphins and drop the hydrophone in the water and let them listen to dolphin conversations,” he said. “We take people out and they get on the boat, they may be from Ohio or somewhere like that, and the change that I see when we find the dolphins. It’s just immediate. They get so excited.”

For now, Collins will continue to warn his customers about what’s going on in the Atlantic and what could happen to the dolphins. “I cringe at the thought of all these air cannons going off,” he said. “It’ll kill them.”

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