By Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress divided along partisan lines Friday on whether the Obama administration should allow seismic testing off the Atlantic coast to find oil and gas reserves, a move toward opening the region to drilling.
House Republicans, including Rep. Jeff Duncan of Laurens, argued that seismic exploration would be a harmless but necessary step to create an economic boom for eastern coastal states such as South Carolina, and eventually would lead to American energy independence.
"I can't find a single instance where a marine mammal's death was attributed to seismic," Duncan said during a hearing involving some members of the House Natural Resources Committee.
But Democrats are concerned about possible disruptions to marine life, the region's overall environmental health, and the tourism industry that depends on it. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico added to their fears.
"Congress should be focusing on safety first, and not recklessly rushing to open new areas to offshore drilling," said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is considering whether to allow the seismic work in the mid- and south-Atlantic region, which extends from Delaware to halfway down the eastern coast of Florida. Seismic exploration uses powerful, loud air guns to generate sound waves for mapping what's below the ocean floor.
The administration has received 13 permit requests from nine companies for seismic air-gun surveys in the Atlantic region, said Walter Cruickshank, deputy director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. While the oil and gas industry has an obvious interest, he said other industries might also benefit.
The seismic data could "inform engineering decisions regarding the construction of renewable energy projects and support estimates regarding the composition and volume of marine mineral resources used for coastal restoration projects," Cruickshank said.
Republicans urged the bureau to finish its overdue environmental impact statement and give seismic companies the green light to start updating the 30-year-old data about where and how much oil and gas is off the coast of South Carolina and other Atlantic states. The government decision is now expected by the end of February.
Cruickshank said the agency may consider closing certain areas to seismic exploration during certain seasons, or ordering a minimum distance between simultaneous surveys, in addition to the marine mammal protections already in place for seismic work in the Gulf of Mexico. Duncan was opposed.
"I don't want to see mitigation efforts be so cost-prohibitive and so large and cumbersome that it doesn't allow seismic off the South Carolina coast, because we want to see those resources developed," Duncan said.
The oil and gas industry estimates that opening the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf to energy development could contribute $2.7 billion to South Carolina's economy by 2035, and boost state budgets by up to $850 million a year with royalties.
James Knapp, a professor from the University of South Carolina's Department of Earth and Oceans Sciences, testified at the hearing that the new seismic technology is much more accurate. Old estimates of oil and gas there are likely too low, and the new data would allow the industry to be more efficient in deciding where to drill, he said.
"We now have significant confidence in not only the presence of a petroleum resource, but also the estimated volume and consequently the economic value of that resource before ever spudding (drilling) a well," Knapp said.
Democrats said oil and gas exploration should not be expanded to the Atlantic before Congress implements the safety recommendations of the national commission that investigated the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill.
"We should not be risking our fishing and tourism industries.. because the energy companies want to get their hands on a quick oil buck," Holt said.
In a Wednesday letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, four Democrats asked for more analysis of how the sound technology affects marine life, including fish, mammals and their habitats.
"It is not at all clear that these impacts are being given serious consideration when decisions about offshore resource development are being made," according to the letter provided by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. Also signing the letter were Holt, Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, and Joe Garcia of Florida.