The Obama administration is currently reviewing permits for seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic to search for oil and gas deposits deep below the seafloor. This will pave the way for offshore drilling, a destructive practice that is dirty and dangerous. I know this more deeply than most. I lost an extended family member when the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico six years ago. He was killed so we could feed our dirty addiction to fossil fuels. He never got to meet his grandchildren.
My opposition to offshore drilling and seismic airgun blasting is not just personal. I worry about drilling and seismic because of harm to the economy, ecology and way of life along my East Coast home. As a physician, I took the Hippocratic Oath, which includes a pledge akin to the Latin phrase Primum non nocere, or “first, do no harm.” Unfortunately, we can’t expect the same pledge from billionaire oil and gas profiteers who are trying to distort the truth, so let’s set the record straight.
I oppose seismic blasting and offshore drilling in the Atlantic, along with more than 115 East Coast communities; over 1,100 local, state and federal legislators; roughly 1,100 businesses and countless residents of the Atlantic coastal states. We oppose seismic because of the 1.4 million jobs and over $95 billion in GDP that depend on pristine beaches for existing recreation, tourism and fishing businesses.
We’ve already rejected offshore drilling in the Atlantic. There’s no need for seismic airgun blasting to search for oil that we decided we don’t want or need. Our oceans shouldn’t be for sale to the highest oil and gas bidder, but profiteers are trying to drown out the people’s voices. Recently, the Association of Geophysical Contractors said efforts to block seismic permits on the East Coast were “attempts to limit knowledge.” This argument is absurd.
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As a physician, I value knowledge, but having more information about health status doesn’t always improve outcomes. We don’t test every patient for every possible disease. More testing is not always beneficial, but it makes a nice sound bite to accuse those in opposition to seismic airgun blasting of wanting to “limit knowledge.” In truth, it’s both data and common sense — not an attempt to limit knowledge — that are behind the opposition. Only, unlike medical testing that can potentially save lives, seismic testing will only cause harm. In making an informed decision, we have to consider what we know about these harms:
We know that seismic airgun pulses can cause hearing damage, disrupt navigation, feeding and breeding of marine life. This includes the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale — less than 500 remain. We know this could injure up to 138,000 marine mammals, some fatally.
We know that burning more fossil fuels will promote climate change, which is already wreaking havoc on ecosystems, economies and risks our geopolitical stability. We know that Pentagon leaders consider climate change a “threat multiplier” to our national security that’s worthy of immediate action. We know that the Navy opposes offshore drilling in the Atlantic because it would interfere with operations and training.
We also know that global warming can increase the geographic spread of tick and mosquito-borne illnesses, which creates scary diagnostic and treatment challenges, especially with pathogens like Zika virus.
We know that where we’ve drilled, we’ve spilled. Where we we’ve spilled, we’ve also killed — not just marine life — but workers. A 10-year Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis found that the fatality rate for oil and gas workers was an average seven times higher than for other U.S. workers.
We’re not trying to “limit knowledge.” We’re analyzing data and applying common sense to say that seismic airgun blasting is the first step in transforming the East Coast from a thriving tourism-based economy to an industrialized, oil-based economy without a guarantee of significant jobs or revenue.
We can’t expect the oil and gas industry to put people over profits, but the Obama administration still can. I pledged to “first, do no harm.” I wish executives in the fossil fuel industry were held to the same standards. I can only hope that, in reviewing the seismic permits, the Obama administration will use the same discernment I use with my patients: Seismic airgun blasting will do more harm than good, so common sense tells us that the permits should be rejected. We want all of our children to enjoy our beloved Atlantic coast alongside their grandfathers.
Dr. L. Kyle Horton of Kure Beach is an internal medicine physician and an environmental public policy advocate.