The St. Augustine Record
June 7, 2017
By JARED KEEVER
The Trump administration’s recent efforts to secure permission to move forward with seismic air gun testing to search for oil and gas off the East Coast has local officials saying the move is a step in the wrong direction and potentially detrimental to the Florida economy.
The National Marine Fisheries Service said Monday it is seeking permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act for five companies to use air guns for seismic surveys in the mid-Atlantic, from Delaware to Central Florida.
The oil and gas industry has pushed for the surveys, which would map potential drilling sites, but many say the air guns, which blast intense pulses of compressed air at the ocean floor, are so loud they can disturb or injure endangered whales and other marine mammals and increase the risk of calves being separated from their mothers. Environmental groups and many East Coast lawmakers oppose the surveys, complaining that air-gun noise can injure marine life and harm commercial fishing and tourism.
The request for permits follows an April executive order, signed by President Donald Trump, aimed at expanding drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, part of his promise to unleash the nation’s energy reserves in an effort to reduce imports of foreign oil.
Under Trump’s order, the Interior Department is reviewing applications by five energy companies that were rejected by the Obama administration.
St. Augustine Mayor Nancy Shaver said Tuesday that the testing, and the drilling that could likely follow, is not something that will be welcome off Florida’s northeast coast.
“It’s unfortunate, probably more than unfortunate, to see this kind of activity going on,” she said. “When Florida is the state where its natural environment, and beaches, are a big part of who we are as a state and how we basically earn our living.”
Drilling off Florida’s coast, she said, “is clearly something that puts so much at risk.” But she also expressed concern about the sea life which could be negatively impacted by the testing itself.
Shaver was among many local officials who, in 2015, staged a demonstration in downtown St. Augustine in opposition of the testing.
That came nearly a year after the St. Augustine, St. Johns County and St. Augustine Beach commissions all sent letters to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management opposing the testing and St. Augustine and county commissioners passed resolutions against it.
In all, nearly 40 cities and counties throughout Florida have passed similar resolutions according to a site operated by the environmental group Oceana, who was among those who worked to bolster opposition to the testing and had some success, when, in January, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management denied six pending applications for the Atlantic.
With the recent moves from the Trump administration, Oceana is staying active.
Ingrid Biedron, a marine scientist with the group, told The Associated Press that seismic air guns “create one of the loudest man-made sounds in the ocean,” and fire it every 10 to 12 seconds, 24 hours a day, for weeks to months at a time.
Erin Handy, a Florida organizer for Oceana, told The Record on Tuesday that the testing, and the prospect of drilling offshore, is not popular in Florida or along the East Coast in general. She cited the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, which, in April, sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke opposing testing and drilling.
“This business alliance represents 41,000 businesses and half a million fishing families,” she said. “This is huge.”
It’s the concerns of such businesses that, Handy said, likely has at least one Florida Republican breaking ranks with the Trump administration on the topic.
Newly elected Rep. John Rutherford, whose district includes parts of Nassau, Duval and St. Johns County, is expected to be sending a letter to colleagues asking for support in opposing the president’s move.
His office on Tuesday did not provide many details about that letter, or when it might be sent, but did issue an emailed statement in which the congressman said that moving forward with the testing and offshore drilling exploration “puts the Atlantic Coast at risk.”
“These local economies depend on a healthy ocean ecosystem for fishing, tourism, and recreation, which generates $94 billion in capital and supports almost 1.4 million jobs each year,” Rutherford said. “I’m working with my colleagues to build a coalition in Congress opposed to opening up the Atlantic to drilling activities and share with the administration how offshore oil and gas exploration threatens our coastal economies based on fishing businesses, restaurants, and the visitors that flock to Northeast Florida.”
Congressman Ron DeSantis’ office requested that any questions on the matter be emailed to spokeswoman Elizabeth Fusick.
DeSantis, a Republican who represents southern St. Johns County as well as Flagler and Volusia counties, is rumored to be considering a run for governor.
An email sent to Fusick asking for DeSantis’ position on the Trump administration’s recent move as well as his position “on oil exploration and drilling in general,” was acknowledged as received by Fusick but no answer was returned as of press time.
Shaver urged anyone concerned about recent developments to contact their elected officials up to and including the president.
“I think people who believe this is not the right thing to do for Florida should speak out,” she said.
This story contains reporting from Associated Press writer Matthew Daly.