Coastal Georgia communities have to look no further than the Gulf of Mexico to see the dangerous risks offshore drilling poses to the environment.
Coalitions opposed to offshore drilling in Georgia and South Carolina hosted a virtual event Wednesday to explore experiences from the Gulf Coast community in order to understand the footprint that offshore drilling leaves on coastal communities.
The event featured guest speaker Christian Wagley, a coastal organizer for the nonprofit Healthy Gulf, which does environmental oversight of the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico and aims to protect the waterways and communities along its shores.
Wagley told event participants he’s happy to help them find ways to ensure that their coastal areas don’t go down the same path that’s been taken in the Gulf of Mexico.
Offshore drilling has been in news headlines lately. President Donald Trump announced in September that Georgia and South Carolina’s coast, along with Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coast, were to be formally withdrawn from eligibility for new offshore drilling.
Also, earlier this month, efforts to seismic blast in the Atlantic Ocean to search for offshore petroleum deposits was put on hold by the industry this year and possibly for several years.
“Seismic testing is the first step in the exploration process for offshore drilling, and this is just such a huge victory for thousands of citizens,” said Samantha Siegel, senior southeast organizer for Oceana in Charleston and moderator during the virtual event.
In its third party oversight role, Healthy Gulf has identified numerous environmental concerns, like spills, leaks and other incidents that have a negative impact on the environment.
A staggering amount of infrastructure is out in the gulf and in the communities on its coast, Wagley said, and spills and pollution are frequent occurrences.
“It is a dirty and dangerous business on even the best of days,” he said.
All of this takes a real toll on people living in coastal communities, he said.
“Hundreds of thousands of people in south Louisiana and south Texas live in and amongst and adjacent to all of those many, many petrochemical plants and processing facilities,” he said. “You’ve heard the term ‘cancer alley’ describing one stretch south of Baton Rouge on the way to New Orleans. And it’s just a terrible, terrible situation.”
As health impacts and environmental justice issues have become better understood and have received more attention, Wagley said there’s been increasing pushback on the industries that are to blame.
“There’s a long, long way to go, and ultimately we’re really never going to get there until we transition to the clean stuff, to solar and wind and away from the dirty stuff,” he said. “But progress is being made.”
Awareness efforts did not prevent the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. Incalculable consequences to marine life are directly tied to that oil spill, Wagley said.
“That’s the thing, that it’s really hard to ever put a price or a value on...our attraction to the coast, the culture, the lifestyle,” he said. “We identify with the coast. We’re water people. We live here because we love the water. We create on it. Water is life, and we never knew if we could ever recover from this.”
This environmental pain isn’t something Wagley said he’d wish on any community.
“We don’t want to see it expanded anywhere else,” he said. “We’ve got to have that just transition, and I give you all my support to help you all keep that drilling away from your beautiful coast here.”
Other speakers included local business owners Dave Snyder and Geoffrey Gable.
Snyder, owner of Halyards Restaurant Group, said his businesses rely on the tourism industry, and offshore drilling and seismic testing would threaten the beauty of this area and the coastal resources that local businesses like restaurants need.
“It’s very important that we have a healthy environment for many different reasons,” he said. “I wholly support making tourism the base of our economy, keeping it the base of our economy and not running the risk of offshore drilling.”
Gable, owner of SML Surf Company in downtown Brunswick, said his business relies on clean water.
And in the Golden Isles, he said, there’s an elephant in the room called the Golden Ray, which poses environmental risks as the process to remove the overturned ship from the St. Simons Sound continues.
“Are we going to see the slicks? Are we going to see these things happen on, I’ll say, a small scale, even though it will be big scale?” Gable asked.
A big scale event like the Deepwater Horizon incident would have the potential to crush coastal Georgia’s economy, Gable said, because so many rely on the water here.
Temporary protections against offshore drilling and seismic testing have been secured for some parts of the coast, but Siegel said more needs to be done.
“Unfortunately, too many states are still vulnerable,” she said. “All states need to be protected. And we’re calling on Congress to take up the mantle and finish the job. Congress must make these protections permanent and expand them to East and West Coast states alike.”
The Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 demonstrated that oil spills do not respect state boundaries, Siegel said.
“There’s too much at stake for us to settle for a sliver of protected waters,” she said. “Our coastal communities, our beaches and our country are counting on permanent protections across the board, so we fight on.”