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Public hearings scheduled on seismic tests for offshore oil, gas

With the federal government now open to the idea of drilling for oil and natural gas off the East Coast, North Carolina residents will get their first chance on Thursday to offer opinions about the possibility of seismic testing along their coastline.

A public hearing scheduled in Wilmington, N.C., is one of eight meetings in coastal cities that the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is holding on the rules that would govern the search for energy reserves. The rest are in Jacksonville, Fla., Savannah, Ga., Charleston, S.C., Norfolk, Va., Annapolis, Md., Wilmington, Del., and Atlantic City, N.J.

They’ll take place in the middle of an election year as President Barack Obama tries to fend off criticism from Republicans who say he isn’t doing enough to address escalating gas prices. And they come after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s announcement last month that energy companies will be allowed to determine how much oil and natural gas are available on the outer continental shelf from Florida to Delaware.

That’s often done in part through seismic testing, which helps companies figure out where resources are as well as helps them avoid archaeological and geologic hazards.

Environment groups, concerned about marine life, have criticized the plans, calling seismic testing “the gateway drug to drilling.”

The seismic guns used for testing equipment would have an enormous impact on humpback whales and other endangered species that have been shown to abandon their habitat over hundreds of thousands of miles, according to Michael Jasny, a senior policy analyst for the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.

“Imagine dynamite exploding every 10 to 12 seconds in your neighborhood for weeks or months on end,” he said. “Now imagine that you’re blindfolded and you use your hearing to find food, to make your way around, to basically survive.”

Tommy Beaudreau, the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said the government was concerned about the potential impacts on marine life, including whales and sea turtles. It’s hosting the public hearings and gathering more data on those possible impacts, he said, in order to learn how to minimize any negative affects. He said the bureau was preparing three scenarios. The first two include different levels of protection and mitigation requirements. The third alternative is to do nothing and not allow any energy searches off the coast.

“If the effects are so extreme that you can’t mitigate against them, then we have a no-action alternative available,” he said in an interview. “The whole reason we’re doing this is because we are concerned and we do want to do the right thing.”

The debate over drilling is nothing new in North Carolina, but the possibility of oil and natural gas exploration off the coast is one of the most significant steps toward energy companies hauling out the drills.

Little is known about what may be buried off the coast of North Carolina. Previous exploration suggests that there’s enough oil to supply the United States for 36 days and enough gas to supply the country for 246 days, according to a report on the issue last year by a state panel.

The North Carolina coast supports a $2.6 billion tourism and travel industry with 40,000 jobs, and a $116 million commercial and recreational fisheries industry with 27,000 jobs.

Last July, North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed Republican-led legislation on offshore drilling that directed her to form an offshore-energy partnership with South Carolina and Virginia. In the fall, however, she said she was open to offshore drilling if it was done carefully.

A 15-member panel she appointed to study the issue found that the state could earn $2 billion to $12 billion in revenues over the life of the reserves.

But the group, which produced last year’s 105-page report, also found that drilling would have no direct effect on local gas prices and would pose great risks to coastal barrier islands.

“Oil pollution from spills as well as normal drilling and production operations is a major concern," according to the report. "Operational spills can occur during transportation ... from equipment leaks where the required containment devices are not adequate, and by inadvertent opening of valves at the wrong time.”

The Obama administration has banned offshore drilling on the Eastern seaboard until at least 2018, but Salazar said he planned to make a decision on whether to allow seismic testing by the end of the year.

If it’s approved, energy companies could begin their work next year.