Extending a little over a mile alongside the Atlantic Ocean, the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk has earned some pretty prestigious accolades. Travel and Leisure and National Geographic both named the boardwalk to their lists of the best in the United States, coming in second and third, respectively. This year, it won the top tourism award in South Carolina for its contributions to the region’s tourism industry. It is easy to see why the boardwalk has garnered so much attention. With a beautiful view of the water, visitors can eat seafood, attend annual festivals and concerts, and stay in one of the town’s many hotels. But how many tourists would make their way to this landmark if it overlooked oil-soaked seabirds and tar balls washing onto the beach?
This is an important question to consider, now that the Obama administration is considering a plan to open the heavily populated and much-visited East Coast to offshore oil and gas exploration and development. Instead of boardwalks, South Carolinians could see the construction of oil rigs, tankers, and the industrialization of coastal communities. After the drills start, forever present would be the looming threat of an oil spill or chronic discharges. Like Myrtle Beach, many communities along the East Coast depend on tourists visiting the coast. In fact, fishing, tourism, and recreation support roughly 79,000 jobs and generate about $4.4 billion in GDP in South Carolina alone. For coastal communities, clean beaches and seaside attractions are not just a nice perk of the location, they are a livelihood.
All of the economically recoverable oil and gas believed to exist off of South Carolina would last for only six days based on current domestic consumption rates. While these reserves would have no impacts on gas prices and energy independence, they could have devastating effects on tourism revenue. Everywhere the United States has drilled, oil has been spilled. After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, many tourists cancelled trips to Gulf of Mexico beach towns. About 60 percent of hotels in Gulf States experienced cancelations in the months following the spill. Also, 42 percent had trouble booking future events. Many of these effects occurred not just in Louisiana, but even in states where oil had not even reached the shore. As far south as Florida, many restaurants saw a considerable decrease in business due to visitors’ fears of contaminated seafood. For those in South Carolina, even a spill from a neighboring state would have disastrous effects on locally-owned tourist attractions.
Before drilling even begins, seismic blasting poses a threat to coastal communities. In order to locate potential drilling sites, airguns are towed behind ships, blasting incredibly loud pulses of compressed air through the water every 10 seconds, for days to weeks on end. This endless barrage of extreme noise disrupts feeding, reproduction and development, of marine life and could lead in the long run to mortality. Marine scientists have warned that these blasts are likely to have “significant, long-lasting, and widespread impacts” on marine mammals and commercially valuable fish.
Up and down the East Coast, 71 towns have passed resolutions against seismic testing and offshore drilling. After hearing public feedback on the issue, U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., revised his position on seismic testing, asking the Bureau of Energy Management to not continue with seismic testing off the coast of the state. Resolutions like these are important because they help show that coastal residents understand the science and economics of the situation: the risks of offshore drilling do not outweigh the rewards.
Today, the Myrtle Beach City Council voiced its opposition of seismic testing and offshore drilling. Myrtle Beach became the 20th community in South Carolina to oppose these activities; which means today nearly 90% of the state’s coastal communities have made formal statements against seismic blasting. Over 150 people showed up to the city council, at 2pm on a Tuesday, to demonstrate their support for the resolution, which passed, 6-1. It’s time for the Governor Haley and President Obama to hear those people, and reverse the decision to allow for seismic blasting in the Atlantic. Today the people of Myrtle Beach took action to protect their coastal ecology and livelihoods. If drilling is allowed to go forward, the next resolutions the council takes up on the topic may be requests for restitution for oil-damaged beaches. At that point, it will be too late.
A version of this post also appeared in TheScuttlefish.com