Years of campaigning paid off Tuesday, when the Obama administration removed plans for oil and drilling off the southeast Atlantic coast from its draft five-year plan for ocean energy development.
The decision came after more than a million public comments were submitted on the proposal, Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said on a call with reporters Tuesday. “We certainly have heard from coastal communities, generally about their opposition,” she said.
Environmentalists — and local residents — have been pushing hard for the waters off the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia to be exempted from offshore drilling plans since the region was included in a preliminary plan from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in 2010.
“Public input is an important part of the planning process,” Jewell said. NASA and the Department of Defense also registered concern with BOEM, she said. “This is not a big reversal. Basically, this is exactly how the process is intended to work.”
Still, it was a welcome surprise to environmentalists, who celebrated Tuesday.
“It’s a beautiful day in South Carolina now,” said Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce. “Obviously, this is the right decision, and obviously it was a decision that arrived because of all the concern” surrounding drilling in the Atlantic.
Because of this decision — and the risk of oil spills and industrialization that was removed along with it — “our economy is going to thrive,” Knapp said. “Why anyone thought it was a good idea… It baffles us.”
The plan covers potential lease sales for offshore drilling between 2017 and 2022. It’s still possible for a new administration to redo the plan or do include new areas in future plans.
Jacqueline Savitz, Oceana’s vice president for the U.S., pointed out that the move will prevent oil spills and coastal industrialization in the Southeast, where the ocean-based economy accounts for up to 25 percent of the employment in some coastal areas. According to a recent economic analysis of Atlantic drilling, a quarter of a million people in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia worked in ocean-related jobs in 2012. The ocean economy contributed $14.6 billion to the region that same year.
It's hoped that cutting the Atlantic out of the plan will be a boon for ocean life, as well -- even perhaps immediately stopping the need for seismic testing.
During testing, boats bounce loud sounds off the ocean floor to identify potential underground deposits. The noises — approximately as loud as a jet engine, going on for days or weeks at a time — can be disruptive to marine mammals. BOEM has estimated that nearly 40,000 marine animals could be injured during mapping the Atlantic's oil and gas deposits. Another 13.6 million animals would face disruptions to migration and feeding patterns.
"The noise from seismic airgun blasting is so loud that it can be heard up to 2,500 miles from the source, which is akin to the distance between Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas," Savitz said, and allowing seismic testing in the Atlantic, especially now that drilling permits have been taken off the table, would be "appallingly irresponsible." Environmental groups are urging the administration not to grant permits to companies hoping to conduct seismic tests in the Atlantic.
When it comes to drilling itself, though, environmentalists didn't get everything they wanted. The administration -- just days after joining with the new Canadian government to pledge more responsible, environmental stewardship in the Arctic -- announced that permitting in that sensitive region would continue.
“Less than a week after committing to protect the Arctic with Prime Minister Trudeau, President Obama has left the door open for Shell and the rest of the oil industry to drill in the region," pointed out Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA. "This decision doesn’t balance conservation and energy, it fuels climate chaos. President Obama must place the whole Arctic off limits. This program isn’t yet final, the President must use the time he has to take all new offshore drilling out of circulation.”
Last summer, protesters delayed a Shell oil rig heading to the Chukchi Sea for the short drilling season in the Arctic. After the season ended, the oil and gas giant announced it would no longer pursue drilling in the region.
The new proposal keeps lease sales in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas and the Cook Inlet, but Jewell pointed out that the administration has protected some areas of the Arctic.
In the new plan, BOEM specifically identifies “environmentally important areas” that will be subject to special consideration during the review period, including input from people who live in the region, particularly subsistence users, such as native communities. A 90-day period of public comment began Tuesday, after which the agency will begin the process of finalizing the five-year program.
"The list [of lease sales] could narrow further or it could stay the same, but it cannot grow," Jewell said.