Florida off-limits to oil and gas drilling — for now

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(Photo: FLORIDA TODAY file)

Waters off Brevard County and elsewhere in Florida will be off-limits to oil and gas drilling until at least 2022, according to a federal plan released this week.

But before then, nine companies that have applied for federal permits could use powerful air guns to survey for oil and gas off coastlines from Cape Canaveral to Delaware.

The Obama administration decided not to open any areas off Florida’s coast to oil and gas drilling as part of the draft five-year plan it released Tuesday. The plan covers federal oil and gas leases for the Outer Continental Shelf from 2017 through 2022.

“They left us alone for the last five years and it looks like they’re going to leave us alone for the next five years,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, said in a release.

But conservation groups fear they haven’t seen the end of plans to drill off Florida.

“We never really ever win, we just win for a brief period of time,” said Corry Westbrook, former federal policy director for the nonprofit Oceana and a member of the Marine Resources Council’s board, a conservation group based in Palm Bay.

Brevard leads the nation with seven communities that have adopted resolutions opposing seismic airgun testing in the Atlantic. Melbourne, Indian Harbour Beach and Indialantic officials voted yes earlier this month, joining Cocoa Beach, Cape Canaveral, Titusville and Satellite Beach.

The West Melbourne City Council plans to consider a similar resolution on Tuesday.

The airguns used in the seismic surveys can cause hearing loss and mask mating calls and other biologically important sound for whales, fish and other wildlife.

Most research on the issue revolves around sound impacts on marine mammals. The impacts on sea turtles are less clear. Sea turtles don’t have ear drums or external ears, but their auditory sense is adapted to vibrations in the water.

A federal environmental study of the proposed seismic surveys includes several alternatives for ways to avoid harming wildlife. Proposals include closing certain offshore areas to seismic surveying during the main sea turtle nesting season and during right whale migration.

But Oceana says that won’t adequately protect the right whale’s migratory corridor and nursery areas. They also say the government failed to consider safer alternative technologies.

Oceana cites federal estimates that the sonic blasts from the proposed seismic surveys could injure and possibly kill up to 138,500 dolphins and whales, and put thousands of tourism and fishing jobs at risk.

Fisheries ecologists say the sounds used in the surveys also could harm fish spawning.

“I’m proud that Brevard’s coastal communities were an important part of a unified voice which said that Florida’s natural capital is worth more than whatever oil might be out there,” said Mike Daniel, chairman of the Surfrider Foundation’s Sebastian Inlet chapter.

“This victory for Florida’s natural resources also shows how our local governments can affect national policy, which is a win in itself. But the larger victory is for our state’s future economy, which depends on our beautiful natural capital,” Daniel said.

Contact Waymer at 321-242-3663 or jwaymer@floridatoday.com Follow him on Twitter@JWayEnviro

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