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Bipartisan group opposes oil exploration off Georgia, but Buddy Carter rejects concerns

Led by U.S. Reps Mark Sanford, R-S.C., and Bobby Scott, D-Va., a bipartisan group of 33 house members last week sent a letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management opposing seismic testing for offshore oil.

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, the Republican freshman whose district spans the Georgia Coast, did not sign on.

The letter requested a halt to the permitting and review process for potential seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean from Virginia through Georgia.

Seismic testing uses airguns towed behind ships to send loud blasts of compressed air deep into the ocean. The sound travels into the sea floor and then bounces back to the ships, creating a map of possible oil deposits.

It’s controversial because of its effects on marine life.

“A significant body of peer-reviewed science demonstrates that seismic airgun testing results in massive displacement of fish, causes catch rates of some commercial fish to plummet and disrupts vital feeding and breeding behaviors in endangered whales,” the letter reads.

In addition, any information garnered through seismic testing will be proprietary, and states won’t have access to it to determine the cost versus benefit of oil drilling, the congressmen note.

“Also, since seismic companies will not be sharing information, seismic airgun testing will be repeated over and over again in the same areas by each company that seeks information about offshore energy resources, unnecessarily exposing fish and marine animals to repeated rounds of seismic testing,” states the letter.

It asks the BOEM to prepare a new environmental review of proposed testing that takes into account the full extent of the impacts — ranging from economic to ecological — caused by seismic airgun testing.

Georgia is the only one of the five affected states to have no representatives sign the letter.

In an email to the Savannah Morning News, Carter said he favors drilling off Georgia’s coast, citing the estimated 5,000 jobs drilling could produce and the $700 million expected for the state budget by 2035 with revenue sharing in place.

“Opposition to seismic testing is not based in science,” he said. “After four decades of seismic surveying activity and research around the world, there is no evidence that the sound from seismic surveys is harmful to marine mammals.

“In fact, in the Northern Atlantic where our beloved right whales spend most of the year, seismic testing has been conducted and there is active energy development without incident.”

Federal law currently does not allow the revenue sharing with Atlantic coast states that Carter relies on in his estimated benefit to state coffers.

Sanford’s letter counters the benefits of drilling with the risks, stating “nearly 1.4 million jobs and more than $95 billion in GDP rely on healthy ocean ecosystems, mainly through fishing, tourism, and recreation.”

“The current basis for issuing seismic testing permits is incomplete,” said Rep. Sanford in a prepared statement. “It does not take into account the long-term effects that seismic testing will have on marine life or the impact on the economy due to industrialization of the coast.

“Accordingly, we don’t think testing that could profoundly affect our coastal communities should be allowed to proceed based on an insufficient study.”

Sanford noted that more than 85 cities and counties along the Atlantic coast have spoken out against seismic testing or offshore drilling. In Georgia, Tybee Island, Savannah and Brunswick have passed resolutions opposing seismic testing and offshore drilling. So has the Gullah/Geechee nation. St. Marys passed a proclamation opposed to seismic testing.

Marine scientists have also weighed in on the issue. In March, 75 marine scientists from organizations including the New England Aquarium urged the Obama administration to reject seismic surveys for oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic, saying that contrary to the BOEM’s findings, there likely will be population-level effects on marine life from seismic testing.

They concluded the agency’s proposed activity “is likely to have significant, long-lasting, and widespread impacts on the reproduction and survival of fish and marine mammal populations in the region.”

BOEM’s claim of a lack of scientific evidence of harm to mammals refers to direct mortality only, said Samantha Siegel of the nonprofit Oceana, and does not account for cumulative, sublethal harm.

Those may become more apparent as scientists look for them. A 2014 study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists has already raised concerns about the impacts that airgun surveys have had on the Gulf’s desperately small population of Bryde’s whales, estimated at 25-40 individuals.  

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