Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Offshore drilling, trailer trash, & sewage

Last Friday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that aims to expand offshore drilling for oil and gas. Under the order, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is supposed to review President Obama’s plan that banned drilling in parts of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans. It also rescinds parts of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which protects undersea canyons in the Atlantic, and stops marine sanctuaries from being designated until they’re reviewed for energy potential.

The U.S. owns rights to waters up to 12 nautical miles from the coastline, and has rights to economic resources in international waters up to 200 nautical miles out. Offshore drilling off the Atlantic coast began in the late 1940s and continued for several decades, but there hasn’t been any since the 1980s. Some of the most recent data on offshore oil potential was collected back then, too: the mid-Atlantic zone is estimated to have 2.4 billion barrels of oil and 23.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and the South Atlantic region — off the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and some of Florida — might hold 414,000 million barrels of oil and 1.78 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

As it turns out, this executive order is not popular among politicians who represent coastal cities and states. More than 100 cities along the Atlantic Coast have banned offshore drilling, mainly because it would drastically impact the tourism industry. Now, the order is exposing rifts among GOP lawmakers across the South. Generally, it seems, people who represent coastal cities are against it, and those further inland have been more supportive of the measure. Immediately after Trump announced the order last week, Republican Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina introduced a bill that would suspend offshore drilling and related activities along the East Coast for 10 years. Other lawmakers, like Senator Lindsay Graham, said the resources in the ocean should be evaluated, but they don’t want to threaten the state’s $20 billion tourism industry.

Similar arguments have ensued in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. In Virginia, lawmakers are split over the issue. Reps. Barbara Comstock and Dave Brat introduced bills recently to make it easier to drill, but other Republicans and Democrats have either shifted their views or are undecided on how to move forward. Petroleum industry groups say that oil off the North Carolina coast is at least 40 miles out, and couldn’t be drilled for another decade or so — but it’s worth looking at those potential resources now. One coastal city council in Georgia banned seismic testing to search for oil years ago because of its possible effects on marine life, but state lawmakers are more open to the idea and bolstered by the president’s order.

Meanwhile, Florida lawmakers are sounding the alarm, concerned that offshore drilling on the Atlantic coast will result in the same problems they faced in the Gulf of Mexico — namely, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill that happened seven years ago. The largest marine oil spill in U.S. history, it killed 11 workers and dumped over 3 million barrels of oil into the Gulf over 87 days. Studies show that most Americans would prefer to avoid that happening again: New research out of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reveals that Americans would be willing to pay $153 per household in taxes — which amounts to $17 billion — to prevent another spill. There is even a bipartisan effort in Congress led by Florida lawmakers to ban drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico 125 miles off the coast until 2027. But it isn’t just Florida’s problem; the economies of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana have suffered for years because of the event.

Offshore drilling, which promises to be one of the most contentious debates over the next four years, impacts the majority of Southern states. It may be that the success or failure of President Trump’s plan depends on how this region and its leaders react.

Stories worth your time 

The Tennessean has an in-depth story on the saga of two landfills in Decatur County and the city of Camden that have contaminated groundwater with “landfill juice.” Recently, officials found “high levels of arsenic, ammonia, cyanide and other heavy metals in leakage from the landfill they traced into a creek that flows to the Tennessee River, the source of [Decatur’s] drinking water.” Both communities are in high-profile legal disputes with landfill companies over the contamination.

For CityLab, Tanvi Misra interviewed John Eason, a sociologist at Texas A&M University, about his new book Big House on the Prairie: Rise of the Rural Ghetto and Prison Proliferation and how prisons in the rural South economically, socially, and politically shape the communities that host them. His case study is Forrest City, Arkansas.

No healthcare insurers are signed up to sell Obamacare in 16 mostly rural Tennessee counties in 2018, which would leave 40,000 people without coverage. Vox makes the argument that this is a preview of how the Affordable Care Act could collapse and how healthcare will look under President Trump.

ClimateWire has a fascinating story on how historically black neighborhoods in Miami are in danger of being gentrified because they’re on higher ground and not at as high of a risk from sea level rise as wealthy white neighborhoods right along the coast.

I don’t really have words that appropriately describe this Bitter Southerner story, which is a writer’s response to stereotypical comments about the poor, rural South. “Digging in the Trash” is simply gorgeous and gut-wrenching.

News flying under the radar 

It may take until November for firefighters to extinguish a wildfire that has burned more than 100,000 acres at a national wildlife refuge in southern Georgia. As of this week, it’s still less than 10 percent contained, and over 500 people are working to fight it.

I find it really interesting how quiet the internet is about natural disasters lately. Manic weather across the region has caused violent storms this year, and 14 more people were killed in tornadoes and floods in Texas and the South.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation fined the Department of Correction after it found that sewage pollution from a state prison polluted the Hatchie River.

Drinking water systems in Kentucky that serve more than 1.5 million people do not comply with federal health standardsaccording to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The city of Atlanta committed to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. St. Petersburg, Florida and Boone, North Carolina are the other two in the Southeast with similar goals.

Thanks for reading, everyone, and have a lovely week!