From Kings Bay to the Matanzas Inlet, the fight for a clean Atlantic Ocean in Northeast Florida — one untarnished by oilrigs and air gun blasts — has been led by a young activist and a resort town mayor.
Last week, Fernandina Beach Mayor Johnny Miller and St. Augustine activist Hunter Miller (no relation) were awarded national recognition by the world’s largest ocean conservation and advocacy organization, Oceana, for their work fighting against oil drilling and seismic airgun testing in the Atlantic Ocean.
Actors and Oceana board members Ted Danson, Sam Waterston, and Kate Walsh were among those on hand to present the awards to both Millers and 17 others from up and down the Eastern Seaboard at the Coastal Voices Summit at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
The recognition surprised Johnny Miller, who was already planning a trip to the nation’s capital to lobby legislators to block bills meant to allow testing for and then drilling for oil in the Atlantic.
“[Oceana] asked me to come a day early. They surprised me with this award. Then, the guy who was supposed to give opening remarks couldn’t show, so they asked me to speak,” he says. “That was a surprise.”
Oceana handed Johnny Miller the mic for a reason. He led concerned citizens in the Fernandina Beach area to write letters to federal officials and pass a resolution stating the city’s stance against allowing oil drilling and seismic airgun blasting to test for oil deposits off the Nassau County city’s coastline. Many others have followed Fernandina’s lead, including St. Augustine, St. Augustine Beach and St. Johns County.
Mayor Miller has also been pushing the Jacksonville City Council to do the same. Jacksonville, which would be the biggest of what is now a total of nearly 100 cities along the Atlantic Coast to pass such resolutions, failed to pass one last year — by one vote.
Miller is confident they will get it passed this year.
The awards event preceded a lobby day Wednesday at the White House and on Capitol Hill, during which approximately 100 coastal leaders and activists met with legislators and White House staff in an effort to dissuade President Barack Obama from opening the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast to offshore oil drilling.
“These local elected officials and business leaders came to Washington to make their voices heard. They’re here to tell President Obama — ‘Our communities don’t want offshore drilling off our coast; take the Atlantic out of your drilling plans’,” stated Oceana’s vice president for the U.S., Jacqueline Savitz, in a news release.
Currently, the Obama Administration is considering opening a large swath of the Atlantic to offshore drilling, spanning from Virginia to Georgia. At the same time, the federal government is considering the use of seismic airguns to search for oil and gas deposits deep below the ocean floor, in an area twice the size of California, stretching from Delaware to Florida.
Seismic airgun blasting involves dynamite-like blasts on the ocean floor, a method used to find oil and gas deposits. The negative effects of such testing on marine life, which in turn negatively impacts coastal fisheries and tourist-based economies, have been well-documented.
Unlike many public officials, Johnny Miller has a hands-on background with what seismic testing might mean, due to his time serving in the U.S. Navy.
“As a Navy Sonar Specialist, [I] used whales and dolphins to understand how sound propagates underwater,” he says. “Sound is everything to them. Their environment is already saturated with noise from ship propellers and civilian and military sonar. I know this because I’ve heard it. To consider further impacting this already-severely altered environment in search of oil is not only ethically wrong, it’s an embarrassment to us as a species. It is our duty as stewards of these coastal areas to take a stand to protect these amazing creatures.”
That sentiment is echoed by 102 East Coast municipalities, 100 members of Congress, more than 660 state and local elected officials and roughly 750 business leaders who have publicly opposed offshore drilling and seismic testing for oil deposits, according to Oceana.
It estimates nearly 1.4 million jobs and more than $95 billion in gross domestic product rely on healthy ocean ecosystems, mainly through fishing, tourism and recreation.
In St. Augustine, Hunter Miller, president of Environmental Youth Council, has led numerous marches for ocean justice over the Bridge of Lions, and has been making his voice heard actively since Bureau of Ocean Energy Management meetings in Jacksonville in 2012, when few others knew they were happening.
“The oil industry had all the cards, they had President Obama. The only thing they didn’t have was us. The coastal communities. And they didn’t expect us to come out so strongly,” Hunter Miller says.
Both Millers — Hunter and Johnny — who spoke to White House staffers and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, say they felt the lobby day was successful, in part due to the broad coalition of business leaders, activists and local government officials who assembled to reiterate the same message to Congressional members and appointees of the Obama Administration: No to seismic testing and offshore drilling.
“Abby Hopper, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, told us these small, grassroots movements and local government resolutions make a huge difference in their decision-making process. We’re building a political wall and giving political cover for people like President Obama to make good decisions,” Hunter says.
But, he adds, the fight is far from over.
“EYC realizes the decisions people make today; we’re going to inherit those decisions. Our children and grandchildren are going to inherit those decisions,” Hunter Miller says. “It’s not just oil. It’s our coastal communities. It’s the oil trucks and barges that would completely change the fabric of our lives. We don’t want that.”