The day before Trump’s offshore drilling order, lawmakers step up to protect their communities

Seismic airgun blasting is used to find offshore oil — but can seriously harm marine mammals and ocean ecosystems.

CREDIT: iStock
CREDIT: iStock

The day before President Donald Trump will reportedly sign an executive order opening previously protected waters to offshore drilling, a bipartisan group of representatives is introducing a bill aimed at preventing one of the most dangerous practices associated with offshore drilling: seismic airgun blasting.

“The seismic pulses from airgun blasts threaten the aquatic species many coastal communities depend on,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said in a statement. “Marine life and ocean biodiversity are essential not only to coastal environments, but to local and regional tourism, recreation, and fishing industries.”

Fossil fuel companies use seismic airgun blasts to locate oil or gas beneath the sea floor, which is then extracted through offshore drilling. But blasting the sea floor with airguns can cause hearing loss in mammals, and interrupt important feeding and breeding behaviors. According to Oceana, airguns used in the testing are so loud that they can be heard from 2,500 miles away. A study conducted by the Department of the Interior found that the practice could injure 138,000 marine mammals, and disrupt the feeding, breeding, or behavioral patterns of 13.6 million more.

Beyer, one of Congress’ most outspoken climate hawks, is a natural fit to introduce the bill. But the bill also enjoys support from at least one Congressional Republican: co-sponsor Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), whose district includes several municipalities that have passed resolutions opposing seismic blasting.


And that’s not a rare move for cities, municipalities, and towns located along the Atlantic Coast: according to data compiled by Oceana, as of January, more than 120 East Coast municipalities, 1,200 elected officials, and an alliance representing more than 35,000 businesses and 500,000 fishing families have publicly opposed either offshore drilling, seismic airgun blasting, or both. The opposition has been largely bipartisan, bringing together groups concerned about the environmental impact as well those concerned about the potential economic impact. In many areas along the Atlantic Coast, the primary industries are fishing and tourism, which could suffer huge losses in the event of an oil spill.

In response to widespread opposition,the Interior Department released a revised five-year plan for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in March of 2016, which closed much of the Atlantic to offshore drilling through 2022. Towards the end of his presidency, Obama also permanently protected 3.8 million acres of underwater canyon along the Atlantic Coast from fossil fuel production, and denied all pending permits for seismic testing in the Atlantic.

“Reinstating drilling and seismic blasting in the Atlantic would be terrible for our coastal economies.”

With Trump apparently aiming to reopen parts of the Atlantic to offshore drilling, however, seismic airgun blasting could also make a return to the Atlantic. And that has lawmakers whose constituents oppose seismic testing or offshore drilling looking for ways to make sure the practice doesn’t harm their district’s coastal environments or economic livelihoods.

“Reinstating drilling and seismic blasting in the Atlantic would be terrible for our coastal economies,” Beyer told ThinkProgress in an email. “If that concern doesn’t move President Trump, he should consider that NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility and the Department of Defense have also raised concerns about adverse effects which drilling could have on their operations. Opposition to drilling is widespread up and down the Atlantic coast, and leaders in Washington should listen.”