Georgians wary of tapping for oil along shores
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
By Jim Tharpe
Sunday, April 4, 2010

The potential hunt for black gold off Georgia’s coast has raised red warning flags among some of the state’s tourism and environmental leaders, even as geologists question how much recoverable oil exists beneath the Atlantic seabed.

President Barack Obama announced last week that the Atlantic coastline from Delaware to the mid-section of Florida would be opened for “exploration, study and potential development” for oil and natural gas, reversing a long-standing ban.

For the near future, there will be only research and study off the coasts of Georgia and other mid- and south Atlantic states. The Interior Department doesn’t plan to consider leasing gas and oil development rights until sometime between 2012 and 2017.

But even the potential for oil rigs, transfer stations or production facilities near the fragile, marsh-lined Georgia shoreline and its multibillion-dollar tourist industry is making some coastal residents shudder.

The barrier islands of Glynn County attract more than 2 million visitors a year, who pump $1 billion annually into the economy. Savannah attracts about 7 million visitors who spend about $2 billion each year.

On the environmental front, David Kyler, director of the St. Simons Island-based Center for a Sustainable Coast, said oil drilling anywhere along the Atlantic coast from Delaware to Florida could harm the Georgia coast.

“Georgia should not be our only concern,” said Kyler. “Currents, winds and waves could carry any contamination here. It also could contaminate species in other areas that migrate here. There’s no way of containing it.”

State Rep. Jerry Keen (R-St. Simons Island) said he is wary of anything that could potentially harm the coastal environment in his district. But Keen said he believes technology has evolved to the point where oil drilling and recovery can be done without environmental damage. And he said the nation needs to reduce its dependence on foreign oil.

“I’m supporting the [Obama] decision, and hopefully we’ll get some good, clean exploratory drilling going on out there in the near future,” Keen said. “There are some safeguards in place to make sure you don’t have a gold-rush situation with a bunch of cowboy explorations going on that could damage the reefs or the oceans or the wildlife.”

Concerns for tourism

Keen said any drilling — and potential problems — will first take place far north of the Georgia coast.

“The good news for us is Virginia gets to be the guinea pig,” he said. “If things go well there, they can transfer that technology to our coast and we should be fine.”

David Egan, co-director of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, said there is too much at risk to permit drilling offshore when delicate ecosystems hang in the balance.

“We have too many examples where those safeguards have not held up,” Egan said. “It only takes one disaster. I don’t know how our tourism and fisheries economy would survive a catastrophic spill.”

Woody Woodside, president of the Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce, said he thinks the chance of an oil spill damaging the coast is “very low.”

“My question is: ‘Where would they take any oil they find and what they would do with it?’ ” Woodside said. “Our interest in hosting a refinery in Glynn County would be remote.”

Federal waters extend from three miles offshore to 200 miles. Most of the known oil reserves in the newly opened areas are thought to be along the Outer Continental Shelf, at least 50 miles or so offshore. Drilling supporters say that means most rigs would not be visible from shore.

William W. Hubbard, president & CEO of the Savannah Area Chamber and Convention Visitors Bureau, noted that the number of hotel rooms in the port city mushroomed from 9,000 to 15,000 over the last decade as tourism blossomed.

“We certainly would have concerns about the natural environment and the barrier islands,” Hubbard said. “Those concerns have to be balanced against a sensible economic strategy for the U.S. My gut factors tell me our risk factor is reasonably low.”

John Wallace, past president of the 60-member Georgia Shrimp Association, said he believes any oil rigs in Georgia waters will be so far from shore they will not affect the shrimp fishery.

“We don’t see anything wrong with the plan,” he said. “It could help some of us get some off-season jobs. In the Gulf [of Mexico] a lot of shrimp-boat crewmen got jobs on oil-crew boats.”

A moot point?

Paul Ferraro, a Georgia State University professor of economics, said that by encouraging drilling, the Obama administration could make it harder for the nation to change the way people use energy. If states become more dependent on oil revenues, they could be less agreeable to calls for cleaner, alternative forms of energy, he said.

But the buzz about lifting the drilling ban has overshadowed what some believe is a more import geological reality — there might not be much oil or gas to be found off the Georgia coast. Or the petroleum reserves discovered there might be too costly to retrieve compared to other oil and gas fields.

“I don’t think anyone is going to be going offshore in Georgia poking holes in the seabed anytime soon,” said University of Georgia geology professor Paul Schroeder. “For whatever reason, nature has not been kind to that area for oil and gas reserves.”

Schroeder, who once worked for Texaco in Houston, said it costs the oil companies millions of dollars for every well drilled. And only a fraction of those drilled are productive, he said.

“The oil companies are pretty smart,” he said. “There may be reserves and deposits out there, but they have to figure out what it costs to get at them.”

The nation’s most-celebrated oil man agrees with Schroeder. T. Boone Pickens doubts the entire multi-state coastal area will give up much crude.

“You can drill in those areas,” Pickens said in a television interview. “I do not think you’ll come up with very much oil. But, let’s do it. I am for anything American.”

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