Offshore drilling spurs local debate

by Tyler Roberts
Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Hundreds of New Hanover County citizens attended two public hearings on Thursday, April 26, to discuss a draft environmental impact study for proposed exploration of offshore oil and natural gas.

The public hearing, which was conducted by the Department of the Interior, was just one of many that are taking place along the Eastern Seaboard this year. The purpose of these hearings is for the department to collect comments about the proposed seismic testing to determine what oil and natural gas resources are available in the Outer Continental Shelf.

The draft detailed three alternatives with varying levels of mitigation efforts, including the impact of not exploring for oil and natural gas at all.

Though several citizens criticized the department for the lack of public notification, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Managementís John Filostrat said Thursdayís attendance was the largest turnout the organization has had so far.

Opponents of offshore oil exploration and drilling pointed to the adverse effects seismic testing has on marine wildlife, which has been linked to the death of marine mammals such as dolphins and whales.

"What struck me is the disconnect between the potential harm and the mitigation measures," said Geoff Gisler, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. "The potential impact of the potential testing is much greater than the proposed mitigation efforts attempting to bring down the level of harm."

Other citizens at the public hearing advocated for the exploration of offshore oil and natural gas, citing potential economic benefits that could result from offshore drilling.

"I am addicted to oil, and as I saw a fairly empty bike rack tonight and a full parking lot, I think that most of us here fall in that category," said Chip Jackson, an independent environmental services professional in Wilmington. Jackson supported offshore testing for oil as well as for potential wind energy resources.

The 1600-page draft environmental impact study that was in discussion centered on the exploration for oil and its potential consequences, not the actual action of drilling itself, explained Thomas Bjerstedt of OEM.

Even if it contributes to altering one line of the EIS then it will have been a success, Filostrat said. However, he added, "most of the comments were not in line for what they were looking for. They were talking about the actual action, not the EIS."

There were many statements made by the public about the need for alternative, renewable energy such as wind energy. Some also criticized the method of seismic testing. It has been linked to marine mammal mortality.

"You canít make an environmental impact statement that points out one species," said University of North Carolina Wilmington marine science student Brady Bradshaw. "This is a fully connected web of life."

Zac Keith, a chapter organizer for OCEANA, was of the opinion that exploration for oil and natural gas would lead to offshore drilling.

"You canít untangle testing for oil and drilling for oil," Keith said. "If you are going to go out there and test for it and find oil, they are going to drill for oil and natural gas."

Two elected officials, Senators Thom Goolsby and Bill Rabon, were present at the 7 p.m. public hearing to voice strong support of oil exploration.

"One of our concerns is that we may have a significant source of natural gas here on the East Coast," Goolsby said. "As we convert our power plants from coal to clean-burning natural gas, it would be nice to know if we do have significant reserves of natural gas."

Rabon echoed the sentiment, stating that he would like to move forward with exploration to at least see what resources are available.

"We need to take care of our own," Rabon said. "We donít need to be dependent on other nations. We donít need to be dependent on other economies. We need to be self sufficient and dependent on ourselves."

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