ONLINE UPDATE: Kure Beach becomes battleground in seismic testing debate

by Sam Wilson
Monday, January 27, 2014

A Monday night Kure Beach Town Council meeting drew dozens of public comments in response to mayor Dean Lambeth’s Dec. 19 letter to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in support of seismic airgun testing along the North Carolina Coast.

An overflow crowd of about 150 community members and activists crowded outside the packed town hall Jan. 27 for a pair of  presentations addressing the controversial practice, in which high-powered sound waves are issued from the ocean’s surface to test for the presence of oil and gas deposits beneath the seabed.

Environmentalists claim the testing could kill or injure thousands of marine mammals, including the endangered right whale. Marine biologist Brady Bradshaw presented on behalf of Echo Friendly Action, a local environmental advocacy group dedicated to ending seismic testing on the coast. In his presentation, he pointed to government estimates that more than 130,000 marine mammals would be killed by the tests if allowed along the East Coast.

The council also heard a presentation from a representative of America’s Energy Forum, an organization sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group representing American oil and gas companies. Andy Radford, a senior policy advisor for the API, said that the message being touted by environmentalists was overblown.

“Those are estimates of numbers of animals that the tests could potentially be exposed to,” Radford said of the government figures. “Decades of seismic surveys all over the world have shown no impact to marine life.”

Randy Stargill disagreed. The Oak Island resident is a campaign organizer for Oceana, an environmental nonprofit organization dedicated to ocean-based conservation.

“It’s not Oceana’s numbers and data, it is the data from the [federal] Department of the Interior,” Stargill said. “It’s the folks with the expertise that have estimated that 138,000 dolphins and whales could be affected.”

The public comment period at the end of the nearly three-hour meeting brought dozens of citizens representing both sides of the issue, with a majority opposing Lambeth’s position on the practice. Many cited tourism and fishing as industries that could be negatively affected by the development of oil offshore, referencing the 2008 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as an example of the industry’s risk.

Advocates for seismic testing, not all of whom specifically voiced support for drilling, also spoke of economic gains for the region.

“It’s a long-term prospect … we don’t even know what’s out there yet,” Radford said. “You are looking at jobs in the ports, you’ve got to service the rigs, and companies will open up offices in the region and hire geographic information specialists.”

Dr. Craig Galbraith, a former Kure Beach commissioner and professor of economics at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, did specifically condemn seismic testing, but urged the council to weigh the facts before lending its support to the practice.

“If you do support seismic testing, you need to make sure it in no way endorses exploration of oil and gas,” Galbraith said, adding development of oil resources could imperil Kure Beach’s existing tourism-based economy.

After the meeting, Lambeth said he remains steadfast in his support of the industry and seismic testing practices.

“It was a couple people stirring up the pot,” Lambeth said. “I have no earthly idea why they would oppose this. They cannot prove that it has hurt a single dolphin.”

Lambeth added that he sent the letter as an individual, not with the intention of committing the Town of Kure Beach to supporting the practice. He pointed out it was a form letter from America’s Energy Forum, and should not be construed as though it had borne the town’s letterhead.

Speaking at the end of the meeting, commissioner David Heglar, who repeatedly pointed out that he differed from Lambeth’s views on seismic testing and offshore oil and gas exploration, also echoed Lambeth’s insistence that he was not representing the town in his letter.

“I felt this was an issue that the Town of Kure Beach, as a small town, shouldn’t be getting into,” Heglar said. “But the fact is that the mayor has taken his own stance on this issue.”

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