OCEAN CITY — With the clock ticking on approval for seismic air gun testing and offshore drilling for oil and natural gas, local chambers of commerce on Wednesday hosted a town hall meeting to rally local support against the potentially dangerous initiatives.
The Ocean City and Ocean Pines Chambers of Commerce, along with Oceana and other environmental advocacy groups, on Wednesday hosted the town hall gathering at the Dunes Manor Hotel rallying support in opposition to a federal proposal to open vast areas of open ocean off the mid-Atlantic coast first to seismic air gun testing for oil and natural gas reserves under the sea floor and then to the exploration and offshore drilling for those resources. Oceana’s Matt Heim explained the two issues are separate, but not mutually exclusive and are proceeding on parallel tracks in the approval process.
By way of background, seismic testing and offshore drilling for oil and natural gas off the Atlantic coast was first proposed during the Obama administration, but was reversed under intense opposition from coastal communities up and down the eastern seaboard along with a coalition of environmental advocacy groups. In 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order reopening vast areas off the mid-Atlantic coast to offshore oil exploration and drilling, renewing a years-long battle that resulted in the previous administration reversing the plan.
In November, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced it had issued it final Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) permits allowing seven private sector companies to begin the potentially dangerous practice of seismic air gun testing for oil and gas reserves in the mid-Atlantic. As the name implies, the permits allow for the incidental harassment of marine life off the coast during the testing process including dolphins, whales and other species, for example.
Those approvals triggered a renewed response in opposition to both seismic air gun testing and offshore drilling and excavation. Clearly, the parallel issues are directly related to potential dangers to the ocean environment and the countless species that call it home. Perhaps no less important is the potential harm to the billion-dollar coastal economies like Ocean City, a distinction made by Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce CEO Melanie Pursel on Wednesday.
“We host eight million visitors and have a billion-dollar tourism economy,” she said. “At the end of the day, our natural resources are what are most important.”
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan related the story of the city’s opposition to offshore oil drilling dating back to the 1970s including a resolution signed in 1974 by the late-Mayor Harry Kelley. The current council passed similar resolutions in opposition to seismic testing and offshore drilling at each step in the lengthy approval process.
“We remain consistent in our opposition,” he said. “We represent our residents, our 26,000 non-resident property owners and the millions who visit here every year. We know how important this is to our future and the future for our kids.”
Heim said the time is now for the local communities to voice their strong opposition as both seismic testing and offshore drilling plod closer to the approval finish line.
“This is an issue that has everyone’s attention,” he said. “We’re going to get this stopped in the mid-Atlantic, but we need you to be engaged. We anticipate the release of the program in the coming weeks and that will trigger the 90-day public comment period. That will be one of our last chances to voice opposition.”
Heim said there is a comparatively small amount of oil and gas reserves off the Atlantic coast that don’t warrant the potential dangers.
“It’s believed there is roughly an eight-month supply of oil in all of the Atlantic,” he said. “If the Atlantic was totally drained of oil, it would just be an eight-month supply. The best-case scenario is if they hit the lottery out there and the number goes up. There are 96,000 jobs in Maryland and a $6 billion economy that relies on a clean coastal environment. That’s what’s at stake for maybe eight months of oil.”
Throughout the town hall meeting, there were continued references to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, but Heim said it likely wouldn’t take a spill of that magnitude to threaten the coastal economy in Maryland and the mid-Atlantic.
“It’s not just a major spill to be concerned with,” he said. “Even a small spill could be devastating. Imagine losing an entire busy summer weekend over even a small spill.”
Heim said there are five seismic air gun testing permits pending in the Atlantic from Cape May to Cape Canaveral, representing 87,000 miles of seismic lines. If approved, the testing would be done for a combined 850 days, or well over two years, and would include five million seismic air gun blasts into the ocean floor.
He explained each seismic air gun blast into the ocean floor would be about 200 decibels and offered an analogy for attendees to understand.
“If you put your ear right next to an ambulance siren, that’s around 90 decibels,” he said. “We’re talking about jet engines taking off. It is the loudest man-made sound in the ocean.”
When asked about the potential impact on the resort’s vast commercial and recreational fishing industries including multi-million dollar tournaments such as the White Marlin Open, Finn McCabe of the Atlantic Coast Sportfishing Association explained the effects could be devastating.
“They are going to impact these tournaments because they are going to drive these species out of the area,” he said. “In the early days, they used to catch tuna and marlin five to 10 miles off the coast and now we go out 70 miles plus. That’s because of water quality. These maps show we’re right in the bullseye in the mid-Atlantic. These areas are right in the middle of the Baltimore and Washington Canyons.”
Ocean Pines Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kerrie Bunting said the big sportfishing tournaments were just a small part of the larger dangers to the commercial and recreational fisheries.
“It’s not just the big species that we think of as trophies,” she said. “There are benthic species that live on the bottom like scallops and lobsters that will be affected by this.”
Assateague Coastal Trust Executive Director and Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips explained the clean-up efforts after the Deepwater Horizon spill, some of which are ongoing. She said dispersants were used that actually sunk the oil floating on the surface to the sea floor, which had the short-term effect of getting it out of sight and out of mind, but severely impacted the sea life under the ocean’s surface. Phillips warned a similar situation could emerge in the mid-Atlantic if offshore drilling was approved.
“Think of the choices here,” she said. “Do you use a dispersant to keep the oil from coming onto the beaches? Do you sink it and impact the food fish? Let’s not have it out there at all. Let’s not have to make those choices.”