OCEAN CITY — With a bevy of local environmental leaders on hand, Ocean City officials on Monday passed a resolution officially opposing offshore seismic testing off the coast of the resort after agreeing the potential risks outweigh the possible rewards.
The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is currently evaluating four permits from three different private sector companies to conduct seismic air gun blast testing off the mid-Atlantic coast for the purpose of identifying oil and natural gas deposits beneath the ocean’s floor. On Monday, the Ocean City Mayor and Council adopted a resolution officially opposing seismic air gun testing off the coast of the resort, citing the potential risks to tourism, recreational and commercial fishing.
In March, BOEM hosted a public meeting in Annapolis to present a proposal to lease roughly three million acres off the mid-Atlantic coast for future oil and natural gas exploration and excavation. The plan is to eventually open the leased area along the outer continental shelf as close as 20 miles from the coast of Ocean City and Assateague for the eventual private sector extraction of oil and gas reserves under the sea floor.
Locally, environmental advocacy groups including the Assateague Coastal Trust and the Surfrider Foundation, for example, have fiercely opposed the plan with public meetings, letters to elected officials, protests and demonstrations, including the “Float for the Coast” rally in August in the bay behind the Roland E. Powell Convention Center.
Maryland’s Congressional leaders, including Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, for example, have also formally opposed the plan to first use seismic testing to determine what lies beneath the ocean floor and eventually drill for the oil and natural gas reserves.
On Monday, Ocean City’s elected officials formally joined the fray with passage of a resolution voicing opposition to allowing private sector companies to conduct seismic testing as close as 20 miles off the coast of the resort. City Engineer Terry McGean, who presented the resolution, recommended passing the resolution, opining the potential risks outweighed any possible benefits.
“There are permits working their way through BOEM to allow seismic testing off the coast of Ocean City,” he said. “The permitted activity could be as close as 20 miles off the coast of Ocean City and they would use huge air gun blasts shot into the ocean floor. There seems to be some disagreement in the scientific community about the potential risks, but by their own admission, the testing would drive fish away in the permitted areas.”
According to reputable scientific reports, a seismic air gun shoots a blast of sound into the ocean floor, each of which is an estimated 100,000 times more intense than the sound of a jet engine. According to ACT, the seismic air guns emit one of the loudest man-made sounds on the planet. If approved, vessels would tow as many as 30 air guns, which would be fired every 10 seconds continuously 24 hours a day and seven days a week for the duration of the mapping exercise, which could last for several weeks.
The concern is the impact of the seismic testing on marine life in the test areas and the unacceptable risk of serious harm to some species that are staples in the resorts multi-million dollar recreational and commercial fishing industries, the full extent of which will not likely be understood until long after the harm occurs.
“The potential risk outweighs any benefit,” said McGean. “This would put at risk an industry that we already have in recreational and commercial fishing.”
Opponents to the proposed oil and natural gas leases off the mid-Atlantic coast point to the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico a few years back, the effects of which are still being felt. ACT officials have said the proposed lease of roughly three million acres off the Virginia coast puts the Delmarva coastline, including Ocean City and Assateague, for example, in the crosshairs of the similar disaster in the future, threatening the complex ecosystems and fish and marine mammal populations while putting region’s $2 billion tourism economy and $1 billion recreational and commercial fishing industries at risk.
For many, the potential exploration and excavation of the oil and gas reserves off the mid-Atlantic coast are simply not worth the risk. For example, the estimated three billion barrels of oil and 25 trillion cubic feet of gas expected to found in the mid-Atlantic lease areas represent only four percent of the nation’s total reserves.
“The belief is the deposits contain about six billion barrels of oil,” said McGean. “That sounds like a lot, but that’s what the U.S. uses each year and it’s not renewable.”
The passage of the resolution on Monday is consistent with Ocean City’s opposition to offshore drilling over the years. In 1974, the Ocean City Mayor and Council passed a formal resolution opposing offshore drilling for oil off the mid-Atlantic coast. Ocean City now joins several jurisdictions up and down the east coast opposed to offshore testing and drilling, but is the first in Maryland or anywhere on Delmarva in adopting a formal resolution.
When the council unanimously approved the resolution on Monday, a cheer went up from the environmental advocacy groups in attendance, including ACT and the Surfrider Foundation, for example.
“We are thrilled that the Ocean City Council has taken a stand against offshore drilling and seismic testing,” said Jane Robinson, a volunteer with the Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean City chapter. “Offshore drilling is not the answer and the council has sent a strong message that our existing tourism and fishing industries are much more valuable than any perceived benefits from drilling.”
Alex Seigel, another Ocean City Surfrider Foundation volunteer, agreed with Robinson’s assessment of the potential risks.
“Coastal towns would get all the risks,” he said. “The drilling operation itself is dirty and, of course, there is the risk of oil spills. The seismic blasting could cause whale and dolphin deaths and, of course, as a coastal town, we are at risk of sea level rise, so there is no upside to this at all.”
ACT officials also applauded the passage of the resolution on Monday.
“This resolution is an important step for the Delmarva coast,” said ACT Outreach and Communications Coordinator Matt Heim on Tuesday. “This federal proposal is probably the greatest threat the Atlantic coast has faced. Ocean City should be commended for taking action and standing up for our coastal waters. We hope other Delmarva towns and counties will take note and join Ocean City in the coming months.”