HACKENSACK, N.J. – Legislators from New Jersey and other Atlantic Coast states are pushing the Obama administration to reverse a decision to allow geologic exploration of the ocean floor from Florida to Delaware as a step toward seeking underwater oil and gas reserves.
In a letter to the head of the agency that oversees oil and gas drilling, 37 House members – all Democrats – cite the risk of an oil spill and the damage it could cause to those who make their living in commercial fishing or tourism along the coast as a reason not to drill for oil or gas.
“We are simply unwilling to accept the tremendous risks of an oil spill in the Atlantic, which would vastly outweigh any potential gains from drilling,” states the letter to Walter Cruickshank, acting director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
“I strongly disagree with President Obama’s push to increase drilling off the East Coast,” said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., one of those who signed the letter. Holt, the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee that oversees domestic drilling, said an accident could endanger 320,000 jobs and $18.5 billion associated with New Jersey’s fishing and tourism industries.
Experts say a spill off Virginia or Delaware could reach New Jersey beaches and wreak havoc because prevailing currents flow from south to north.
Last month, the bureau approved the use of sonic cannons to discover deposits under the Atlantic by shooting sound waves 100 times louder than a jet engine. It would be the first time in nearly 40 years that any mapping for gas or oil has occurred in the Atlantic.
Approving the use of seismic air guns has drawn criticism from environmental groups because the guns could affect marine life such as whales and sea turtles that communicate using sound waves.
The area in question spans about 211 million acres, from Cape Canaveral on the coast of Central Florida to Delaware Bay at the southern end of New Jersey.
When announcing the move last month, Cruickshank defended the decision, saying the “bureau has identified a path forward that addresses the need to update the nearly four-decade-old data in the region while protecting marine life and cultural sites.”
The potential oil and gas resources beneath the Atlantic are not well documented, though research conducted in the 1970s and 1980s indicated the presence of oil deposits. The federal government sponsored exploratory drilling in the 1970s along a promising formation called the Baltimore Canyon, about 100 miles east of Atlantic City. Those wells indicated the area had the potential for oil and gas.
Last year, a federal report estimated that the heaviest concentrations of methane hydrate in the United States lies 75 to 150 miles off New Jersey and Delaware. Methane hydrate is a form of natural gas trapped in ice crystals under the seafloor.
The bureau’s decision covers oil and gas lease sales from 2017 to 2022. The bureau had concluded that for the current lease period of 2012 to 2017, lease sales in the Atlantic would not be appropriate “due to the lack of infrastructure to support oil and gas exploration and development, as well as spill preparedness and response,” the legislators’ letter states. They argue that the circumstances that spurred the bureau’s exclusion of the Atlantic before are still relevant reasons to prohibit oil and gas exploration.
The legislators argue that climate change and ocean acidification are already stressing the Atlantic ecosystem, and that the destruction brought by Superstorm Sandy “demonstrated the fragility of our coasts.” They say they favor development of offshore wind farms in the Atlantic instead of oil and gas drilling.
In addition to Holt, New Jersey Reps. Bill Pascrell Jr., Frank Pallone and Albio Sires also signed the letter, along with Democratic House members from Florida, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and other Atlantic states.