Opposition mounts to seismic testing for Atlantic oil and gas reserves

With the fourth anniversary of the BP disaster approaching, the conservation group Oceana teamed up with The Illuminator to send officials in Washington, D.C. a message against oil and gas drilling along the Atlantic coast. (Photo by Oceana/Melissa Forsyth.)

This Sunday, April 20 marks four years since BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster began unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and setting off an 87-day gusher that dumped an estimated 200 million gallons of oil into the coastal ecosystem.

Though fishermen say catches are still down due to the environmental damage caused by the spill, BP is back in action in the Gulf. Last month it reached an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lifting the ban that kept it from signing new drilling deals. Less than a week later, the company emerged as the highest bidder for 24 of the Gulf blocks on sale.

With a return to business as usual for Big Oil in the Gulf of Mexico, the industry is now pressing to open up the southeastern Atlantic Coast to exploration -- but it's meeting growing resistance from local communities that would be most directly affected by expanded drilling.

The first step toward oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic is seismic testing, which involves using air guns to shoot compacted air to the ocean floor, creating sound waves used to map undersea reserves. But the practice, which is currently banned in the Atlantic, raises serious environmental and economic concerns, as it's known to cause injuries to marine life and damage fisheries.

The governors of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia are among those calling to allow seismic testing to proceed off their coasts. They appear to have won the support of the Department of Interior, which in February published an environmental analysis that endorses seismic exploration for an area stretching from Delaware to Florida.

But a growing number of coastal cities and town have passed resolutions opposing seismic testing. They are Cape Canaveral, Fla.; Cocoa Beach, Fla.; Carolina Beach, N.C.; Nags Head, N.C.; Bradley Beach, N.J.; and Red Bank, N.J. In addition, the city of St. Augustine Beach, Fla. voted unanimously to oppose seismic testing and wrote a letter to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management expressing its opposition, while Caswell Beach, N.C. approved a resolution expressing concern about seismic testing.

Meanwhile, 110 state and local elected officials signed onto a letter sent this week to President Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell opposing seismic testing. The signatories include mayors, city council members, county commissioners and state lawmakers from Delaware, Florida, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia. Oceana, a conservation advocacy group that's involved in the fight against seismic testing, expects more local officials to join the opposition in the coming weeks.

"We urge your administration to stop this process and focus on ensuring the vitality of vulnerable coastal economies along the Atlantic Coast," the letter stated. "We cannot continue to put our ocean environment, beaches, marine resources, and coastal economies at risk."

The elected leaders join 155 representatives of conservation and animal welfare groups that have also signed onto a letter to Obama and Jewell opposing seismic testing and calling for a transition to a clean renewable energy future.

As part of its ongoing campaign against Atlantic drilling, Oceana this week conducted what it calls a "nighttime visual projection demonstration" in Washington, D.C. The group teamed up with The Illuminator -- a cargo van equipped with video projection equipment -- to display the phrases "#STOPTHEDRILL" and "DRILL SPILL REPEAT?" on government buildings including Union Station, the Postal Museum, and the National Gallery of Art.

"When it comes to offshore drilling in the U.S. one overarching theme stands out -- Drill, Spill, Repeat," said Claire Douglass, Oceana's campaign director. "Offshore drilling is no safer than it was four year ago, yet President Obama is taking steps to expand this dirty and dangerous industry to the Atlantic. If the President would simply stop to listen, he would hear that coastal communities have no interest in turning the East Coast into a blast zone."