How Our Government Could Alter the Coast We Know and Love

My career studying oil spill impacts came about by accident - an actual accident. I was establishing field experiments in a coastal lagoon when the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill occurred through a blowout at a nearby oil platform. My experiments ruined, I volunteered in oil response efforts and in reviewing shoreline impact studies. Oil had touched me then and would do so again.

In 1989, I was appointed to the Oil Spill Trustees science review panel after the Exxon Valdez disaster, ultimately making dozens of trips to Alaska to integrate efforts by teams of researchers working to understand the fate of the oiled coasts and coastal life and to forecast how long recovery might take. We knew this research was critical to a new understanding of offshore oil drilling risks and future spills.

And future spills happened. The nation watched as grainy camera images depicted failed efforts to stem oil gushing from the sea floor for 87 days following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The dark oil plumes that spread over increasing areas of the sea surface showed that we - the country and the oil and gas industry - were again woefully unprepared to mount an effective response. And now attention is focused on Santa Barbara once may in the wake of the May 19 spill on Refugio Beach.

A decision looms now for the South Atlantic coast, where the Department of the Interior is deciding whether to open the seafloor from Virginia to Georgia to oil and gas leasing - a shift in federal and state policies.

For judging the merit of offshore oil drilling in my own backyard, I pose four questions: What is the potential oil yield versus costs of extracting it? What are the obvious risks of oil drilling off our South Atlantic Coast? Is scientific study of ocean physics, biologically valuable resources, and socioeconomics of coastal communities sufficient to predict impacts and direct effective response actions to prevent a spill from becoming catastrophic? Are there viable energy alternatives to offshore oil drilling?

The answer to each question reveals that oil drilling off North Carolina and the other Southeast states risks much for the many and gains little for a few.

First, known oil and gas reserves off North Carolina are very small - maybe enough to supply the U.S. with gas for two months and oil for nine, and at depths that make drilling expensive and risky.

Second, serious risks are clear and far-reaching to our coastal economies, cultures, seafood harvests, and human communities from Georgia to Virginia. Our southern coasts are home to some of the country's most attractive beaches, extensive seagrass, oyster reef, and marsh habitats, and a wealth of spectacular marine organisms.

Our Southeast coastal economy is based upon this clean and healthy environment - from tourism and fishing to real estate development and retirement industries. These industries would be threatened by oil drilling, not just from the threat of a major blowout and spill but from the many small spills, discharges, and releases happening daily. The collateral heavy industrialization that follows oil production, from pipelines to refineries, would conflict with the livable communities, vacation meccas, and the retirement industry of the Southeast coast.

Third, based on both a review of available scientific information and considering the response failures to contain the Exxon Valdez spill and cap the Deepwater Horizon blowout, I conclude that more science and technology are needed. Lacking are: (a) verified dynamic 3-D ocean circulation models off the Southeast coast to enable accurate prediction of the fate of spilled oil; (b) full functional understanding of globally unique habitats such as "The Point" off Cape Hatteras, and the floating Sargassum ecosystem, both of which support populations of valuable fishes, sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals; and (c) detailed socioeconomics for human communities and resources at risk all along the Southeast coast.

Experience makes it difficult to trust the oil and gas industry to conduct the technical research and development needed to maintain preparedness to nip oil pollution disasters in the bud. The recent news that the latest Santa Barbara spill may have been caused by a corroded pipe only serves to further undermine my faith in the industry's technical readiness.

Lastly, is there an alternative? We have a wealth of renewable energy opportunities in the Southeast, and North Carolina's potential for offshore wind energy production may be the greatest in the country. Offshore renewable energy development would bring well-paying, high-tech jobs to local people. The societal consequences of success for us Southeast Atlantic coastal residents are nowhere near as bright with offshore oil drilling as they are with wind.

This issue is not about ensuring sufficient scientific research on ecosystem responses to oil spills - it's about the fishermen I see every day, the neighbors who escape outside with me for long beach walks, the retirees and vacationers, and the many others whose lives depend on our coastal environment and resources, such as realtors and surf shop owners. This decision by our federal government could forever alter the coast we know and love.