South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Davis to Congress: ‘Oil and water should not mix’
January 17th, 2018

By Tom Davis, Special to The Island Packet

Below is the text of testimony state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, plans to deliver Friday, Jan. 19, before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

The hearing is titled “Deficiencies in the Permitting Process for Offshore Seismic Research.”

Davis provided the text to The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette on Wednesday.

  1. Impact of seismic testing:

Seismic testing involves firing loud sonic guns into the ocean floor every 16 seconds to read echoes from the bottom geology, with the tests taking place over miles of ocean for months at a time. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirms that the sound from the sonic guns can be recorded from sites more than 1,860 miles away.

Scientists disagree on whether these underwater noises are lethal, but most do agree the blasts could alter sea mammals’ behavior, affecting their migration patterns, mating habits and how they communicate with each other. Most animals in the ocean use sound the way animals on land use eyesight; saturating their environment with noise will have an impact. ExxonMobil had to suspend seismic-blasts near Madagascar after more than 100 whales beached themselves. NOAA estimates that 138,000 marine animals could be injured, and 13.6 million could have their migration, feeding, or other behavioral patterns disrupted.

Seismic testing also affects commercial and recreational fishing — sonic blasts can decrease catch rates of commercial fish species by an average of 50 percent over thousands of square miles. Seismic blasting will affect fish that spawn in the rivers and estuaries all along the East Coast. A 2014 study cited by Congressmen John Rutherford (R-FL) and Don Beyer (D-VA) that found reef fish off North Carolina declined by 78 percent during seismic testing compared with peak hours when tests weren’t being conducted.

  1. Results of seismic tests would be proprietary to private companies.

Proponents for testing and drilling often argue that seismic tests are necessary in order to provide coastal communities with data about oil and gas deposits off their shores that is necessary in order to assess whether it makes economic sense to move forward with drilling for those resources. But that information is considered proprietary by the private companies conducting them. Local decision makers won’t have access to it, nor will the public. Not even members of Congress can get their hands on it.

  1. Damages associated with drilling.

Accidents happen in a world where human error, mechanical imperfections and coastal hurricanes all play unexpected roles. When you drill, you spill. It is inevitable. The oil industry touts a 99 percent safety record, but that 1 percent is pretty horrific for people living in the vicinity of a spill when it occurs. The federal Mineral Management Service predicts at least one oil spill a year for every 1,000 barrels in the Gulf of Mexico over the next 40 years — a spill of 10,000 barrels or more every three to four years.

We saw what happened in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 when the BP Deepwater Horizon rig spilled millions of barrels of oil into the gulf. It was a disaster, but thankfully the Gulf's bowl-like shape contained the spill in that region. A similar spill off the Atlantic Coast would be a disaster of epic proportions. If oil entered the Gulf Stream it would be forced up into the Chesapeake Bay, the Hudson River Valley, the Gulf of Maine, the Grand Banks (some of the richest fishing grounds in the world).

The Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon blowout showed that oil cannot be removed from salt marshes and other wetland systems. It can remain in the sediments for decades, as was seen in marshes in Massachusetts. Coastal salt marshes in South Carolina are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, and nursery grounds for many estuarine and marine species. Toxic substances from oil spills, both chronic and acute, will put all of these organisms at risk.

Even if a spill never occurs — and both the oil industry and the federal government admit that spills are inevitable – there’s still an adverse impact to South Carolina’s coast in that the land-based infrastructure necessary to support offshore drilling is dirty and highly industrial. Also, the infrastructure required to transport offshore oil is devastating, e.g., a series of canals built across Louisiana wetlands to transport oil has led to vast destruction of marshlands. Healthy marshlands are a critical component of our ecosystem.

  1. Economics.

Hydraulic fracking has increased domestic petroleum production by 64 percent. The federal Energy Information Administration now predicts the nation will be a net energy exporter within a decade – for the first time since the 1970s. There’s no need for offshore oil production off South Carolina’s coast, especially in light of the costs noted above — better to treat offshore reserves as “money in the bank” for later generations.

The American Petroleum Institute says oil and gas drilling could result in $2.7 billion to South Carolina over a two-decade period. That sounds like a fairly big number, but according to the PRT, tourists in South Carolina spent nearly ten times that amount — more than $20 billion — in 2015 alone, with about 60 percent of that resulting from tourism to coastal areas. Even the most lucrative oil and gas scenario would generate less than 1 percent of the economic impact tourism has on the state. Moreover, tourism revenue increases every year with no signs of that trend slowing; the same cannot be said of the demand for oil.

The U.S. Defense Department says drilling in the Atlantic is not compatible with defense operations — that leasing areas include “locations where the (Defense’s) offshore readiness activities are not compatible, partially compatible or minimally impacted by oil and gas activities.” Live training exercises are conducted off the Atlantic Coast “from unit level training to major joint service and fleet exercises. These live training events are fundamental to the ability of our airmen, sailors, and marines to attain and sustain the highest levels of military readiness. Additionally, (the Defense Department) conducts major systems testing activities in the mid-Atlantic region that are also important to military readiness.”

No federal structure is in place that would accrue any royalties to South Carolina, and there’s little chance Congress would approve one. There’s a very real possibility that the federal government’s formula for “revenue sharing” would mean the revenues accrue to Washington while the states incur the risks, whether it’s the environmental and tourism damage from a spill, or wagering an investment in infrastructure to support an industry that gambles on the quantity and availability of the resource.

That total amount of energy resources, according to Department of Interior estimates, would keep the U.S. in oil for 61 days. And there’s no guarantee that the drilling will pan out at all. Five wells have been drilled in this section of the Atlantic in the past, the last being in 1962. All were abandoned. Cuba has put down four wells as recently as 2012, and all were found to be uneconomical, and have been capped.

  1. Alternative energy.

We must wean ourselves from dirty, nonrenewable fossil fuels and invest more in renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal. External costs, or externalities, are never fully allocated to companies that drill for oil – and that gives such companies an unfair advantage over companies developing alternative sources of energy — sources that tend to be, by design, cleaner and more sustainable.

  1. Forms of opposition to offshore seismic testing and drilling.

Legal: When the past administration removed our area from the Five Year Plan they also rejected six permits pending to begin seismic testing for oil and gas. These denials have been remanded by the Secretary of Interior and are currently in the process of being reviewed by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and associated federal agencies, including the National Marine Fisheries Service which, in order for the permits to move forward, must authorize “Incidental Harassment” to the natural habitat and animal life in it. The second authorization will be required under the National Environmental Protect Act (NEPA). The South Carolina Environmental Law Project will file a law suit to stop implementation and a restraining order to postpone testing until the case can be heard.

Political: Efforts will be made to convince President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Last week, Secretary Zinke acceded to a request by Florida Gov. Rick Scott to exempt Florida’s coastlines from offshore drilling, calling Gov. Scott “a straightforward leader that can be trusted,” and declaring support for “the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has made a similar request for an exemption for the same reasons.

  1. Bottom line: who do we want to be?

125 East Coast municipalities, more than 1,200 elected officials, and an alliance representing more than 41,000 businesses and more than 500,000 fishing families officially said “no” to testing and/or drilling.

Some politicians try to straddle the fence, saying they want the jobs the oil industry would bring, but they don’t want to do anything to harm our beaches and tourism. But you can’t have both. You cannot wholeheartedly protect the environment South Carolina is fortunate to enjoy, yet be willing to risk it for the unknown.

Seismic testing and oil drilling pose unknown threats to our coast that could include devastating damage to our beach communities and the water quality we enjoy. Oil and water should not mix, and now is a time of choosing. Pick one or the other.

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