Alice Keyes faced a wall of grassy salt marsh and clapped her hands. She was trying to get a response from clapper rails -- seldom-seen, fat-footed marsh birds.
“When you clap it agitates them and they’ll usually call back,” Keyes said. “But apparently we’re not close enough to them right now.”
She stood on the edge of the St. Marys River, in the very far southeastern corner of Georgia. It’s a classic Georgia coast setting: calm, quiet water with occasional small boats going by. Birds flickered in and out of the otherwise still marsh.
“Our coast is unlike any place on the planet. There are so many unspoiled and scenic places,” said Keyes. She works for the environmental nonprofit 100 Miles, named for the length of the Georgia coast, and she does not want to see oil or gas development come here.
The Obama administration is considering opening up the Atlantic coast for offshore oil and gas development. It’s been off-limits for drilling for decades, and environmental groups in Georgia like 100 Miles would like to keep it that way.
“I grew up in Louisiana,” said Keyes, “where oil and gas is pretty significant in the Gulf of Mexico. And I vacationed on the coast. And I have seen the oil rigs. I have seen the criss-crossing of pipelines; I have seen the dredging of the marshes, and the helicopters that go back and forth, back and forth to support those operations.”
Keyes said she’s worried about similar effects the industry could have here, where endangered species like the North Atlantic right whale and loggerhead turtles have their offspring and where much of the economy relies on tourism.
“A spill is a real threat,” said Keyes. “But it’s also the leakage, and it’s also the operations of just running an underwater oil or gas rig.”
Starting A Conversation
No one is allowed to drill on the Atlantic coast yet -- it’s been off-limits since the early 1980s -- but the federal government is considering selling leases in the Mid- and South-Atlantic, including off the coast of Georgia.
The Obama administration wants to start a “conversation” about drilling in the Atlantic, according to Abby Hopper, the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees offshore oil and gas development.
“We thought it’s an important conversation to have,” Hopper said. “It’s important for our national security, to think about where are we going to get our energy supply. It’s important for residents of these communities to think about what they want their coast to look like. What kind of economic development they want, what kind of industry they want.”
BOEM has held hearings and conducted research for the past year. Within the next few months, the agency will release a draft document that analyzes the environmental impact of drilling in the places where leases might be sold.
“We try to identify those areas that have sort of the most resource potential, and the least amount of conflict, and those are the areas we try to offer up for lease,” Hopper said.
Find Out What’s Out There
The only Atlantic states whose coasts could see offshore drilling are South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia, because they asked BOEM to consider them. Other states either declined, or didn’t express an opinion.
Congressman Buddy Carter, who represents the Georgia coast, supports the idea. But on the local level, there are mixed opinions.
State Rep. Jason Spencer from Camden County said the environment is important, but his district needs jobs.
“We need more diversification,” Spencer said. “We need more industry there.”
Savannah, Brunswick and Tybee Island have all passed resolutions opposing offshore drilling and seismic surveys. Kingsland and St. Marys have passed resolutions just against the surveys, which are used to search for oil and gas. The surveys are controversial because environmentalists and some scientists are concerned that they could harm marine animals, though the oil industry claims they are safe.
“Honestly we really don’t know what’s out there,” said Hunter Hopkins, the executive director of the Georgia division of the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry group. “That’s why we’re pushing to go out there and see what it is.”
The last time anyone did a survey was decades ago. The old surveys didn’t find much, but Hopkins says newer technology might find oil or gas reserves now.
If there is any oil out there, oil rigs would not be visible from the coast. BOEM requires that they be at least 50 miles from shore. Hopkins said he’d like to be able to say there would not be a repeat of what happened with the Deepwater Horizon Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but he can't.
“Nobody can guarantee anything, but we’re trying to do our best from the industry standpoint to make sure nothing like that ever happens again,” Hopkins said.
Oil may be cheap now, but Hopkins says even with more renewable energy, demand for oil will continue.
If the surveys and the lease sale move ahead, BOEM plans to hold the auction for leases in the Atlantic in 2021. If Georgia’s coast turns out to have oil or gas worth drilling for, it would take at least another decade to complete studies, get rigs in place and start drilling.