Offshore oil exploration: Can the average citizen make a difference?

Environmentalists and some scientists say the use of seismic air guns in undersea oil and gas exploration can harm and even kill whales, dolphins, turtles, and "larval krill" a main food source for whales (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Oceana)
Environmentalists and some scientists say the use of seismic air guns in undersea oil and gas exploration can harm and even kill whales, dolphins, turtles, and “larval krill” a main food source for whales (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Oceana)

VIRGINIA BEACH – To the average American it often seems that our elected leaders, once they get to Washington, D.C., can become somewhat hard-of-hearing to the wants and desires of the voters who sent them there.

Such is the case with the recent approval of a permitting process by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which will allow seismic airgun exploration in the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast of the United States – an activity, experts say, that is extremely hazardous for whales, dolphins, turtles, and other sea creatures.

Hundreds of municipalities have already expressed formal opposition to both airgun exploration and offshore drilling, as have hundreds of state and local legislators.

In Hampton Roads, cities already opposed to exploration and drilling include Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Hampton, and Newport News.

So do the voices of the people really matter?

“Local voices do matter. It can feel like they don’t, but we all need to speak up,” said Laura Habr, co-owner of Croc’s 19th Street Bistro in Virginia Beach.

Habr is also active in the Virginia Beach Restaurant Association and is a founding board member of the Business Alliance to Protect the Atlantic Coast, a leading business organization working to ensure long term health and economic vitality of the Atlantic seaboard, and which has received the support of more than 42,000 businesses and 500,000 commercial fishing families in its efforts to protect the Atlantic Coast from offshore oil/gas exploration and drilling.

Seismic airgun blasting is 100,000 louder than a jet engine and the sound can travel more than 1,000 miles underwater (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Clean Ocean Action)
Seismic airgun blasting is 100,000 louder than a jet engine and the sound can travel more than 2,000 miles underwater (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Clean Ocean Action)

Habr said the various groups she’s involved with are currently formulating plans, but she added that even more voices are needed. Individual citizens, small business owners, and others should write or email their representatives; write or join organizations already working to protect the coast from offshore oil drilling; and even write the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Department of the Interior – the federal agencies that will, in the end, decide on matters such as seismic air gun testing and offshore drilling.

Terra Pascarosa, Virginia Campaign Organizer for Oceana, the world’s largest international advocacy organization focused solely on ocean conservation, agrees that citizens can be heard and can make a difference.

“It resonates every time they hear from a person and every time they hear from a municipality,” she said. “We need businesses, teachers, professors, scientists… we need everyone to speak out. Not just environmental groups. Everyone knows we’re against it.”

In addition to writing local, state, and national leaders, Pascarosa said people can spread the word on social media and help to educate and inform others to what she said are the environmental dangers of oil exploration and drilling.

Permits for seismic airgun testing from five companies are currently under review (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Oceana)
Permits for seismic airgun testing from five companies are currently under review (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Oceana)

Both Pascarosa and Habr agree the jobs and economic benefits that are always promised in situations like this are false.

“This will not bring money nor jobs to Virginia. It will cost us jobs actually,” Pascarosa said, adding that the people who know how to do airgun testing will come from elsewhere, as will the vast majority of workers on any future oil platforms.

Habr said testing and drilling are “not worth the risk.” Virginia and its residents are not in line for any royalties if gas or oil is found off the coast of the state.

“It’s all downside,” she said. “There’s no upside.”

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