Plans To Explore For Oil Offshore Worry East Coast Residents With memories of the massive BP spill still fresh, residents are hoping to stop offshore drilling and underwater seismic testing. Industry leaders say they follow rules meant to protect wildlife.

Plans To Explore For Oil Offshore Worry East Coast Residents

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As the Obama administration opens the door to offshore drilling, the oil industry is promising more jobs and less reliance on foreign oil. But some cities and towns along the Eastern seaboard are saying no thanks. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Sarah McCammon begins her story off the coast of Georgia.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Tybee Island, Ga., is a short drive across the marsh from the historic city of Savannah. The island is dotted with hotels and tiny vacation cottages for tourists, and for about 3,000 people, it's home.

PAUL WOLFF: This is one of the most unique places I've ever seen.

MCCAMMON: Walking along the beach on an overcast day, Tybee City Councilman Paul Wolff says a height limit for buildings helps preserve the ocean view.

WOLFF: It's a coastal community that hasn't been overdeveloped.

MCCAMMON: Wolff worries about a federal proposal to open up areas at least 50 miles off the coast of Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia to oil and gas development. Federal regulators say drilling wouldn't happen for several years at least, but many companies want to start surveying for oil now. He says an offshore oil boom could threaten marine animals and the island's thriving tourism industry.

WOLFF: We make a lot of money, and a lot of folks on Tybee support their families by doing dolphin tours. I don't want to take a chance on hurting that for anybody.

MCCAMMON: Earlier this year, Wolff sponsored a resolution opposing both offshore drilling and seismic air guns. That's a technique that blasts sound waves into the ocean every 15 seconds or so to search for oil and gas deposits. Tybee City Council passed the resolution unanimously, joining more than 30 others since last year on the Eastern seaboard. Another is Beaufort, S.C., where a small group of residents recently met in the mayor's waterfront cottage to talk about how to oppose the oil industry.

MEGAN FEIGHT: What I'd like to do is just meet each one of you and hear your background. Some of you I've met before.

MCCAMMON: Twenty-eight-year-old Megan Feight grew up surfing and now owns a business in Beaufort. She recalls seeing the aftermath of the 2010 BP oil spill while flying over the Gulf of Mexico in an airplane.

FEIGHT: Seeing something like that in person gives you sort of the same feelings that you see when you see photographs or videos of it. It's horrifying and real.

MCCAMMON: Even without an oil spill, some researchers worry that noise from seismic air guns may confuse marine animals who depend on sound for navigation. Industry leaders like Richie Miller say they follow federal rules meant to protect wildlife. He's the president of Spectrum Geo, an oil and gas survey firm based in Houston that's applying to conduct some of the seismic tests.

RICHIE MILLER: There are what we call PSOs, protective species observers, on the vessels, and they're there solely to look for marine mammals. And if they get within a certain safety zone, then the vessels shut down.

MCCAMMON: As regulators consider requests from companies like Miller's, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is hosting public meetings up and down the coast to discuss both offshore drilling and seismic testing.

JOHN FILOSTRAT: Because this has been peaking a lot of interest.

MCCAMMON: John Filostrat is a spokesman for the agency.

FILOSTRAT: The seismic acquisition hasn't been conducted on the Atlantic for three decades. And so we really don't have up-to-date information on what's out there.

MCCAMMON: What happens next is up to state and federal regulators. Coastal cities can only pass resolutions expressing opposition without any force of law. But Beaufort's mayor, Billy Keyserling, says these local efforts are important.

MAYOR BILLY KEYSERLING: I think that the more towns which do represent bundles of people that are involved in sending the message and educating the public, the more difficult it's going to be.

MCCAMMON: If the plan moves ahead, ships carrying seismic air guns could start their search for oil as early as this year. For NPR News, I'm Sarah McCammon in Savannah.

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