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Context Florida: Barney Bishop, Florida should take head out of the sand, allow offshore seismic surveying

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

As we all know, Florida is an odd state for politics; one where Republicans control the Cabinet, House and Senate, but where voters have supported a Democratic presidential candidate the last two cycles.

On the important topic of energy, Florida’s red politicians get very purple. Traditionally, Republicans have supported the notion of offshore energy exploration, the Keystone XL Pipeline and efforts to boost the manufacturing sector. Democrats have traditionally sought reforms to regulation and pushed for alternative energy sources, many opposing offshore drilling in particular.

But in Florida, support for the industry is far less identifiable. Given Florida’s reliance on beach-driven tourism, politicians have largely stayed away from endorsing offshore drilling, even if it occurred more than 100 miles off the coast. To take it a step further, Sen. Bill Nelson has recently filed legislation to create a moratorium on seismic surveying, a process that would gather information on what oil and natural gas resources are available off the Atlantic coast. Seismic testing was approved last summer by President Barack Obama along the east coast south to about Melbourne. Additionally, Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown has introduced a city resolution to ban the activity in that area.

To be clear, seismic testing isn’t drilling. It is a technology that sends pulses of sound to the ocean bottom and brings back up data that can provide a 3D view of where oil and gas resources are found below the ocean floor. It is a highly regulated process that requires many steps of approval and oversight before actually occurring.

Nelson, in summing up his opposition to the testing said, “If you’re not going to drill there, then why do the seismic testing?” But what that question assumes is that there will never be a time in which offshore energy exploration is needed off the Atlantic coast.

Because of advancements in technology, the United States is now producing its natural gas needs while also exporting worldwide. And oil production has increased in recent years to shrink the gap between what Americans consume – roughly 19 million barrels of oil per day – and what is produced. Coastal states to the north – North and South Carolina and Virginia, which all rely upon their coastal areas for tourism – have pushed for offshore drilling in recent years to boost their economies.

By denying even seismic testing, leaders are saying the country shouldn’t even know what resources are available off the coast. Seismic testing is about information gathering, not creating a precursor to drilling. There will be no drilling off Florida’s coast at least for the next seven years and possibly beyond that. But we should have the information to make informed decisions about potential next steps.

This is important not only for our economy, but also for our national security. The United States has the resources to fuel our economy without heavily relying on unstable and unfriendly countries for oil. But without allowing the country to produce those resources, we are opening ourselves to become dependent on other countries and vulnerable in the global economy.

The main argument against seismic is the potential damage to sea life. Here’s a snippet from a March 2015 document from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which regulates seismic surveying and other energy practices:

“To date, there has been no documented scientific evidence of noise from air guns used in geological and geophysical seismic activities adversely affecting animal populations.” The agency does not deny that the noise from seismic testing could disrupt animal life, but concludes testing is more an annoyance rather than injury. The agency concludes this based on bottlenose dolphins, which are routinely exposed to testing in Mexico, which has not affected populations. The document goes on to say that when marine life is spotted in the area or appears to be approaching the area while seismic testing is being done, federal regulators shut it down.

The head-in-the-sand approach to energy production is not a good policy decision for our country. Florida relishes its beaches – as it should – and Florida politicians are often scared to even utter the phrase offshore drilling. But seismic testing is a process that makes sense to gain knowledge. Knowledge is critical to ensuring a safe and smart approach to energy. Denying knowledge is denying the opportunity to make an informed decision on a topic critical to our future.

Barney Bishop III is CEO of Barney Bishop Consulting LLC in Tallahassee.Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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