In January 2015, the U.S. Department of the Interior released the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Draft Proposed Program. The program would open the Mid- and South Atlantic coasts to oil and gas leasing for the first time in over 30 years, potentially impacting communities, jobs, beaches, fisheries, and ecologically significant marine resources of our coastal states. The Southern Environmental Law Center works within four states—Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia—where offshore drilling is proposed, and is a prominent environmental voice in the discussions. The center needed to identify and visualize the geography and environmental concerns pertinent to the draft proposed program to help focus work for themselves and key partners.
Geospatial analysts at the Southern Environmental Law Center used data obtained from MarineCadastre.gov to analyze and visualize wildlife and natural resource areas potentially impacted by offshore drilling. They specifically assessed the locations of designated critical habitat for loggerhead sea turtles and North Atlantic right whales, essential fish habitat, and habitat areas of particular concern for all species, including highly migratory species. In addition, the analysts examined ocean depth of proposed drilling areas, jurisdictional data, and the locations of nearby marine protected areas, national marine sanctuaries, and research reserves. Summary statistics were calculated for the offshore waters, and maps were generated (one for each state’s offshore waters to the exclusive economic zone) to highlight some of the resources at risk.
Results from the geospatial analysis show that approximately 90 percent of South Carolina waters proposed to be opened to drilling are designated essential fish habitat, and almost 95 percent of North Carolina waters proposed fall within loggerhead sea turtle Sargassum critical habitat. These crucial facts were used to inform comments submitted to the U.S. Department of the Interior. Additionally, pulling these data together into a map series to be included with comments helped visualize just how extraordinary the Atlantic coast is and address issues of concern for stakeholders. The wealth of geospatial data available from the Digital Coast enabled the Southern Environmental Law Center to enhance its objectives early in the policy process, and will continue to inform ongoing work related to proposals for offshore mineral exploration.