From the Palm Beach Post:
As the drilling rig Horizon burned on the oily surface of the Gulf of Mexico, a small group of environmentalists, government officials and oil speculators gathered at a hotel in Jacksonville to discuss environmental impact of offshore drilling — in the Atlantic Ocean.
Three weeks earlier President Obama stunned environmentalists and the oil industry when he agreed to expand oil and gas development and exploration along much of the eastern seaboard - from central Florida to southern New Jersey. Six public hearings in coastal cities — including the meeting in Jacksonville -- were hastily scheduled to allow the public to discuss environmental concerns.
And then — unexpectedly -- came the Horizon explosion, injuring 17, leaving 11 unaccounted for, before the rig sunk beneath an oil slick five miles long and growing. The timing wasn't lost on anyone. "People say, 'See, that's why it's a bad idea,'" said Lesley Royce, conservation director of the Duval County Audubon Society, who attended the meeting. "I hate that that happened, but it is an example of what can happen."
Building an oil rig or platform in the ocean is not much different than building one in the Gulf of Mexico, said Ted Bourgoyne, Professor Emeritus of the College of Petroleum Engineering at Louisiana State University. As for safety, a rig or platform in the ocean is not necessarily more dangerous than one in the Gulf, Burgoyne said. Each position is unique. Depth and current are among the biggest hazards, he said. "I wouldn't hesitate to work out there," Bourgoyne said. "There hasn't been an accident of this magnitude since 1964" -- when a blowout on a Gulf drilling barge killed 21 crew members.
Until now discussions about drilling off Florida's coast have focused on the Gulf of Mexico. Gov. Charlie Crist re-ignited the debate in June 2008 when he announced that he supported research but still opposed drilling. Florida lawmakers did not introduce any bills about off-shore drilling this year. However, on April 9 a special house committee released an independent risk analysis that found oil spills from offshore drilling in the Gulf "are unlikely to present a major risk to Florida."
"It is important to state the obvious: there is great uncertainty about whether there are commercial hydrocarbons to be found in State waters and, if found, their quantity. Drilling is required to prove reserves, and no drilling has taken place for 25 years…."
On March 31 the drilling debate turned eastward, when President Obama appeared with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to announce a strategy to expand oil and gas exploration and development on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf — the submerged land at least three miles offshore.
But before oil companies can even begin to explore for oil, there must be hearings on whether the exploration techniques alone — which use very loud sound waves to map below the sea floor - will harm sea life. The loud bursts of sound from underwater air guns may be harmful to whales, which depend on sound waves to communicate and orientate themselves.
Environmentalist group Greenpeace reported that in June 2008 approximately 100 rare melon-headed whales were stranded following offshore seismic surveys by Exxon-Mobil off the coast of Madagascar. The oil company denied a connection between the stranding and testing. Still, Royce is concerned. The endangered Right Whale gives birth in the waters off Jacksonville.
"Say you have a neighbor having a wild party and it's annoying," Royce said. "Just because you're not dying doesn't mean it's not harmful. It's way too big a risk."
Chip Gill, president of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, said the timing of whale migrations is well documented and surveys are not done during whale migrations. The blasts of sound from air guns crescendos, so whales and other sea life are not blasted with the loudest sound waves first and have time to leave the area.
Of the all areas off the east coast being considered for exploration, Florida's coast is among the "most" sensitive designated by the Interior Department. As for whether there is oil off Florida's east coast, no one knows. Even if there is, it would probably be at least five years before any drilling would begin, Gill said.
"I don't think anybody expects the Atlantic seaboard to have oil and gas reserves up and the down the whole coast," Gill said. "Really, nobody knows."