WASHINGTON — As the Obama administration eyes a new generation of oil drilling in Atlantic waters, dozens of East Coast lawmakers are warning against the move.
The lawmakers — 12 senators and 53 House members — argue that the beaches in their home states and their coastal economies are at risk.
“The health of our ocean is directly tied to the economic health of our communities,” the House members said in a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “Coastal activity in Atlantic states — ranging from fishing, tourism, recreation and more — currently supports 1.4 million jobs and nets $95 billion in gross domestic product annually.”
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster — which dumped millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico — illustrates the dangers, said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and 11 of his East Coast colleagues in a separate missive.
Oil from that spill reached the coastlines of all five Gulf Coast states, the senators noted, drawing parallels to how spilled crude could travel up the Atlantic seaboard.
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has proposed selling oil and gas leases off south- and mid-Atlantic states in 2021 — with the available tracts at least 50 miles away from the shoreline. But that initial draft proposed program, unveiled in January, will be honed and likely narrowed before a final version is complete, possibly in late 2016.
Offshore drilling foes are hoping that by keeping the heat on the administration, they can convince the ocean energy bureau to change course, possibly canceling an Atlantic sale altogether.
But they face determined pro-drilling interests, including leaders in Virginia who have long lobbied for oil and gas development in nearby waters.
The House members acknowledged the divide in public opinion. “We understand that along the Atlantic coast, there is some interest in proceeding with oil and gas drilling,” the lawmakers write. “However, we believe that proponents fail to appreciate the severe risks of offshore drilling to our critical coastlines and marine environments, and our fishing, tourism and recreation economies.”
Offshore drilling advocates argue that the activity will create a new revenue stream for those coastal economies while developing new, domestic sources of oil and gas.
Although there are no active oil and gas leases in federal Atlantic waters today, energy companies drilled 51 wells there between 1975 and 1984. Five wells off the coast of New Jersey found natural gas or other hydrocarbons but were abandoned as too expensive to produce at the time.
Successful drilling campaigns in other parts of the Atlantic Ocean — including along Canada’s Coast, in the Caribbean and in South America — also hint at potential oil under the United States’ Atlantic waters.
The last geological studies of the region are decades old, providing scant information about the potential. The ocean energy bureau is now considering nine applications to conduct similar seismic research in the Atlantic.
But in a “Science Note” published Monday, the agency’s chief environmental officer, William Y. Brown, stressed that the bureau “will not consider issuing any air gun seismic survey permits in the Atlantic” unless applicants have first obtained a separate Marine Mammal Protection Act authorization from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And that authorization, in turn, is contingent on NOAA determining that the proposed seismic research will have “no adverse effect” on marine mammal species or stocks.