Posted by: The ocean update | September 26, 2014

Atlantic Beach passes ordinance opposing use of seismic airguns for oil exploration (Florida, USA)

These North Atlantic right whales were photographed in 2009 traveling off the coast of St. Augustine. Photo courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

These North Atlantic right whales were photographed in 2009 traveling off the coast of St. Augustine. Photo courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

September 26th, 2014 (Amanda Durish Cook). On Sept. 8, the City of Atlantic Beach became the fifth town in Florida to formally oppose seismic airgun testing when the city commission passed a unanimous resolution. The city joins the ranks of Cocoa Beach, St. Augustine, Cape Canaveral and St. Petersburg, which all passed similar resolutions earlier this year.

With the force of an explosive charge that’s 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine, seismic airgun surveys shoot compressed air along the ocean floor every one to 12 seconds, 24 hours a day for up to weeks on end. The guns are used for geologic exploration, to find pockets of oil and natural gas that can later be captured.

In the resolution, Atlantic Beach cited several reasons for their opposition, noting that the compressed air blasts can kill fish and turtle populations and deafen dolphins and whales. In some coastal towns in North Carolina, the slogan “A deaf whale is a dead whale” has started to circulate. Atlantic Beach officials pointed out that the use of the airguns “will result in serious negative impact to our marine resources which form the foundation of economic vitality for communities all along the Atlantic Coast.” The resolution also mentioned that the testing could injure or kill the less than 500 North American right whales left in the world.

If seismic testing for oil explorations is allowed next spring, it’ll be the first time in more than 30 years that it has been allowed on the country’s Atlantic coast. The U.S. Department of the Interior okayed seismic testing for commercial industry on July 18, and some think the move could eventually lessen the U.S.’s dependence on foreign oil.

For the remainder of this month and during October, the first seismic blasts along the East Coast will take place off of North Carolina. However, the seismic cannons won’t be there to search for fossil fuels; instead they’ll be used less extensively to explore the Earth’s crust as part of a National Science Foundation study.

Two weeks ago, a similar resolution opposing testing was up for discussion in Melbourne Beach. The measure was ultimately adopted at a city council meeting on Sept. 17.

Additionally, officials in St. Johns County, St. Augustine, St. Augustine Beach, and Jacksonville have sent letters on the issue to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the agency in charge of green lighting any seismic airgun surveys in search of oil.

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has called the surveys an “environmental hazard,” and said that the testing could hamper Jacksonville’s military operations.

But how impactful is the measure passed by Atlantic Beach? Claire Douglass, campaign director at environmental nonprofit Oceana, said resolutions adopted by Atlantic Beach and other Florida communities aren’t merely a symbolic gesture; they could illicit change. Oceana collects resolutions and official letters from towns that oppose the airgun testing and sends them to the federal level.

“BOEM has made it clear that they are interested in the communities and the states. They will listen to these towns, and they will respond to pressure,” said Douglass, who spoke with the Times-Union while attending a series of meetings on the matter in Charleston, S.C. “We do know that the agency is listening and the time is now for coastal communities to weigh in. If they don’t want something to happen off of their coast, it’s their right to stand up and make their voices heard.”

So far, nine applications for oil exploration on the Atlantic have been accepted and are being reviewed. Affected coastal cities could be anywhere between Cape Canaveral and southern New Jersey.

Douglass said she doesn’t know which cities along the East Coast are being eyed by the corporations for surveys that could begin by early 2015.

“The site-specific decisions are being made behind closed doors,” she noted.

In the meantime, Douglass said it is Oceana’s job to educate the public as much as possible. She said the group is putting together educational forums and that Jacksonville is on their list of places to visit.

“Time will tell,” she concluded. “The more cities and communities stand up, the more they will hold the government accountable to act in their best interest. It’s up to the communities to do what they want, but it’s our task to educate these communities on the facts.”

Jeff Montanye, an Atlantic Beach resident for more than 50 years, was one of the citizens to speak in favor of the resolution before it was adopted.

“My understanding is that it’s particularly tough on sea mammals — dolphins and whales,” he said.

Montanye, a longtime scuba diver, said he thought of being underwater during a blast. He concluded it was something he didn’t want to experience.

“Even if there is oil — which I doubt there is — I don’t want to see them drilling here,” Montanye said. “I‘ve been to Santa Barbara, and [the coastline] looks awful. I feel that we need to go from fossil fuels to renewable fuels.”

Atlantic Beach City Commissioner Maria Mark started emailing articles on the subject to the other commissioners weeks ago and introduced it as a workshop item before it was discussed as a resolution. But, she said, little discussion was needed before it was adopted.

“The bigger picture obviously is the adverse impact to sea life, all the way from crabs to the whales. It didn’t merit a lot of conversation because the commissioners were all either already aware of it or knew it was a no-brainer,” Mark said. “We need to stand in solidarity with all the other coastal towns up the Atlantic Ocean. My hope is that all other towns in coastal Florida begin a similar process.”

“These towns need to weigh in early and they need to weigh in often. The decisions made today are going to affect future generations.” Douglass said. “We’re at a critical point. Are we going to encourage renewable energy, or is it going to be business as usual ? Are we going to allow another Gulf oil spill disaster?”

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