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RESOUNDING RESOLUTION: Wilmington City Council votes to oppose seismic testing and offshore drilling

The resolution to oppose seismic testing and offshore drilling passed 6-0. It made Wilmington the largest city to join 15 other municipalities in North Carolina that passed similar resolutions. However, the lingering question remains: What does it mean?

Dozens turned into hundreds at last week’s City Council meeting on Tuesday, July 21. I stood upstairs in the nosebleeds of City Hall and watched blue shirt after blue shirt trickle in, armed with signs: “Don’t Drill NC” and “Protect Our Coast.” One gentleman, a recent Kentucky transplant, turned to me and asked, “Are these meetings always like this?” He wanted to get to know his new city and by happenstance picked this meeting to attend. “Only when people are really happy or really pissed,” I said. That night it was a little of both.

COASTAL RALLY: People turned out in droves for the council meeting against seismic testing and offshore drilling. Photo by Zachary Keith

COASTAL RALLY: People turned out in droves for the council meeting against seismic testing and offshore drilling. Photo by Zachary Keith

Aside from several items on the agenda (Resolution Authorizing Industrial Investment Grant to AAI Pharma, passing 6-0), the blue shirts were there for “R1: Resolution in Opposition to Seismic Testing and Offshore Drilling Activities off of the NC Coast” (brought by councilman Charlie Rivenbark on June 16). The title is pretty self-explanatory: It’s a resolution for the City of Wilmington to oppose seismic testing and offshore oil and gas development.

Organized by the Surfrider Foundation Cape Fear Chapter—which didn’t have a rally or protest in mind—more than 200 people were expected to show. “Wilmington City Council has been very supportive of this resolution to date,” chair Ethan Crouch said. “We don’t feel like we’re in an uphill battle on this; it’s a matter of supporting the council in passing this resolution and letting them know they have support.”

The resolution comes after the Federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) decision to pursue offshore seismic testing to find out what (if any) oil and gas reserves are along the mid- and south Atlantic. They also want to draft a five-year oil-and-gas-leasing plan to begin in 2017; leases to drill wouldn’t be awarded until 2021.

Crouch told me after the meeting that the council needed all the support they could get against increasing pressure from the American Petroleum Institute (API) to oppose the resolution. API representatives attended a July 20 meeting to give 5-minute introductions of what they planned to speak about at Tuesday’s council meeting; however, they spoke for 45 minutes. As well, they told the council they would not be able to attend Tuesday’s meeting, after all. “It was typical practice by the oil and gas industry to manipulate our council (behind closed doors) and avoid public scrutiny,” he speculated.

Vice chair of the Surfrider Foundation Cape Fear Chapter, Lindsey Deignan—also a marine biology Ph.D. student at UNCW—and Dr. Bob Gisiner, the director of Marine Environment with the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, were the main presenters on Tuesday. In favor of the resolution was Deignan, while Dr. Gisiner opposed it.

Part of the resolution targets seismic testing, specifically air-gun surveys that produce high-volume blasts every few seconds. It potentially disrupts marine-life behavior, such as eating, breeding and even migrating. Deignan was joined by Dr. Douglas Nowacek, a researcher from Duke University’s Marine Lab, who attested to dangers based on varying levels of intensity and frequency used during seismic testing. Gisiner insisted no existing research showed harm to marine life. While there was seismic testing done along the area’s coast in the 1980s—as well as surveys for area sea-floor mapping earlier in 2015—Gisiner said the technology is stronger today and can find more oil, if it’s there.

“When we redid surveys in the Gulf of Mexico, there was five times as much oil and gas as we thought in ‘83,” he said. “There’s a good chance the same thing will happen here.”

The use of seismic testing to find and drill for oil along NC’s coast was—and remains—the root of the issue. Gisiner only spoke on seismic testing and the importance of its use before drilling, as well as other offshore renewable energy, beach replenishment, and tsunami and coastal-erosion predictions. Deignan addressed risks directly related to oil drilling, such as degradation of ecosystem services, impacts to profitable local industries (fishing, tourism, etc.), and the industrialization (pipelines, refineries, service vessels, etc.) associated with oil drilling.

“And I think we’re all aware of the risk of a large-scale oil spill,” she continued. “[It] would be devastating to our local environment, coastal environment and economy. We only have to look at the BP spill back in 2010 and see how that area is still struggling to recover.”

Deignan noted there are no profit-sharing plans in place for the state in relation to oil drilling. It would take place in federal waters, therefore, go into the U.S. Treasury.

After hearing both sides, the council put the resolution to a vote and added their final thoughts. “To me, the main point of this is to oppose offshore drilling,” councilwoman Laura Padgett said. “So why add to seismic testing? Why would we increase use of something to find something else we oppose anyway?”

The resolution to oppose seismic testing and offshore drilling passed 6-0. It made Wilmington the largest city to join 15 other municipalities in North Carolina that passed similar resolutions. However, the lingering question remains: What does it mean?

Will these resolutions stop, or slow down, BOEM’s five-year plan? Will they make our state’s legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory reconsider pro-drilling philosophies and decisions? encore posed these questions and more to Gov. McCrory’s office and did not receive a response prior to this issue going to press.

Tuesday’s meeting can be viewed in its entirety at www.wilmingtonnc.gov/city_council.

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