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The Georgia Coast: Conservation is Never Over

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Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration Threatens our Atlantic Shore

By: Brian Foster, Communications Director, The Georgia Conservancy

Georgia’s coast, more than 110 miles in length, offers a stark contrast to that ideal beach resort lifestyle often touted by other states in the advertisements of glossy travel magazines. When describing Georgia’s coast to outsiders, it’s oftentimes easier to discuss what it lacks before discussing what is has. Neither high-rise condos nor endless strips of surf shops line our Atlantic shore. Colorful plots of hotel umbrellas are a rare sight, while scenes of packed beaches of partying college students on break, made famous by MTV and 80s teen movies, are limited to a just a couple miles of sand, one or two weeks a year. Golfing is not the top recreational activity. True, this kind of lowcountry living has its time and place for many, but it can be easily found, year-round, up and down the coasts of neighboring states. Perhaps the most important feature lacking from Georgia’s coastline, however, is the heavy offshore and onshore industry that has threatened the ecological and environmental integrity of other coastal states – oil and gas. These communities, interestingly, are wholly absent from those same glossy ads. More on that in a moment.

Let’s first briefly list just some of the ad-worthy qualities that Georgia’s coast does possess:

  • A total of 15 barrier islands with only four linked to the mainland by bridge
  • Dozens of miles of deserted beach
  • Thriving commercial and recreational fishing and shrimping
  • Historic small towns and communities, home to generations of people with deep ties to the land and water, many of whom are saltwater Geechee.
  • A National Seashore, a National Marine Sanctuary, a National Estuarine Research Reserve, two National Monuments, two Federal Wilderness Areas, five National Wildlife Refuges, five State Wildlife Management Areas, six State Parks & Historic Sites, a State Natural Heritage Preserve and two State Natural Areas.
  • Three privately-owned barrier islands under conservation
  • The ecologically-important estuaries of five major rivers
  • Some of the most globally-significant habitat areas in North America
  • One-third of the salt marsh found on the Eastern seaboard
  • Atlantic waters that provide the ideal setting for the calving of the world’s most endangered marine mammal, the North Atlantic right whale.

Sapelo Island

The list really does go on and on, and one hopefully begins to understand that Georgia has something incredibly unique and special at home its six coastal counties. It’s an incredibly attractive place for what it is and for what it has become.

What is truly a paradise for nature lovers, our coast’s gnarly wooded uplands and vast prairies of spartina are still here today, not entirely by way of natural progress, but through the actions of individuals – people from St. Marys, Georgia to the halls of Congress. Many of the places celebrated today as natural sanctuaries by residents and visitors (Cumberland Island, Blackbeard Island, hundreds of acres of marsh hammocks, e.g.) were at one point on the verge of destruction by the large scale commodification of their natural resources. Whether that threat was a beach resort, a timber operation or industrial mining – residents, organizations and legislators (local, state and federal) successfully fought for the conservation and for the restoration of our natural systems in many locations throughout our coast. Places that could have been easily lost to the whims of developers, industrialists or short-sighted politicians were saved due to the collective actions of people who cared deeply about our natural resources.

But, as we like to say, conservation is never over. A once distant threat to our coast – offshore oil and gas drilling – is now on the horizon. And this threat is greater than the development of one island or the mining of one marsh hammock, for it brings with it a comprehensive and irreversible change to coastal Georgia’s traditional economy, its communities, its restored landscapes and its natural habitats.

The surveying and operations necessary to establish an offshore oil and gas industry in Georgia is tremendous, and its risks far outweigh its rewards.

Seismic testing in our Atlantic waters, which was authorized by the Trump Administration in November last year, has the proven potential to disrupt commercial and recreational fisheries, as well mortally injure marine mammals, including the critically-endangered North Atlantic right whale, which travels to our offshore waters every winter to give birth.

An obvious environmental concern is the risk of a catastrophic oil spill and the threat that one poses to life along every inch of our coastline and in every acre of our salt marsh. We don’t have to look far, either geographically or into the past, for an example of what that looks like.

The scale of onshore infrastructure and additional public services needed to support offshore oil and gas exploration and extraction should not be overlooked. Would these support systems be developed near our populations centers, would they be built over our rural communities, would they replace many of our conserved natural areas?

In addition to threatening our state’s natural resources and an existing coastal economy focused on outdoor recreation, tourism and commercial fishing, oil and gas extraction in our coastal waters only prolongs our nation’s reliance on an unsustainable source of energy and worsens the impacts of climate change.

Sapelo Island

Overwhelmingly, from Maine to Florida, coastal communities are united in opposition to offshore oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic. Current governors (Democrat and Republican) in every state along the Eastern seaboard, including Georgia, have also voiced their opposition.

Conservation is never over. We, as Georgians, have the opportunity every day to forward the protection of coastal Georgia’s incredible natural resources. We have to speak up and speak out. This week, the Georgia General Assembly convened for the 2019 Legislative Session, and with that comes the opportunity for our state legislators to not only join together to say no to offshore oil and gas exploration, but to also put in place legislation to restrict the development of an oil and gas industry along our coast.

The Georgia Conservancy will be at the State Capitol every day of the legislative session advocating conservation-minded measures, including those that seek to protect our state’s environment and people from the threats of offshore oil and gas exploration.

Please reach out to your State, as well as your Federal representatives, to show your support for such legislation and to voice your opposition to offshore oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic.

To learn more about the Georgia Conservancy’s concerns regarding oil and gas exploration visit: https://www.georgiaconservancy.org/offshore-drilling

To learn more about our advocacy efforts under the Gold Dome, please visit: www.georgiaconservancy.org/advocacy/update

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