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President Obama cancels dangerous testing in the Atlantic

The Obama administration just denied all pending seismic permits in the Atlantic.

An offshore oil rig, onshore. CREDIT: iStock/Wildnerdpix
An offshore oil rig, onshore. CREDIT: iStock/Wildnerdpix

The Obama administration today announced that it has denied all permits for seismic testing in the Atlantic, a move that helps solidify the president’s environmental legacy in his final weeks and comes as welcome news to environmentalists bracing for the new administration.

“We know that seismic airgun blasting is dangerous,” Oceana campaign director Claire Douglass said in a statement. “Today, we thank the Obama administration for finishing the job in protecting the Atlantic Ocean from offshore drilling activities.”

The move comes just a few weeks after Obama permanently protected 3.8 million acres of underwater canyon along the Atlantic coast from oil and gas leasing. Earlier this year, in releasing its new five-year plan for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Obama administration also closed much of the Atlantic to oil and gas offshore drilling through 2022.

“With offshore drilling off the table for the near future, there was absolutely no reason to risk the damage that would be caused by seismic airgun blasting in the region,” Douglass said.

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Seismic testing, or seismic airgun blasting, involves blasting the seafloor with airguns to search for oil. It’s an extremely loud process that can cause hearing loss in marine mammals and disturb crucial feeding and breeding behaviors. According to Oceana, the noise from seismic testing is so loud that it can be heard up to 2,500 miles away. The six permit applications would have led to seismic testing in a huge part of the Atlantic, from the New Jersey-Delaware border to the middle of Florida — an area roughly twice the size of California.

“Seismic blasting is not only the gateway drug to offshore oil and gas development, but it also has enormous environmental harm in itself,” Michael Jasny, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project and Land & Wildlife Program at NRDC, told ThinkProgress. “It’s known to disrupt mammal behavior like foraging and nursing and endangered whales, and compromise fishing by disrupting fish populations over very large areas of ocean. To have proceeded with this folly would have been inimical to the health of our oceans and the communities that depend on them, and irreconcilable with the clean energy future.”

“Seismic blasting is not only the gateway drug to offshore oil and gas development, but it also has enormous environmental harm in itself.”

In 2010, BOEM released its draft five-year plan (2017–2022) for oil and gas leases in U.S.-controlled waters — including opportunities for oil and gas drilling off the southeast Atlantic coast.

The proposed plan was met with staunch community opposition. According to Oceana, as of today, 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.

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Much to their relief, when BOEM released its revised plan in 2016, the areas, which are off the coast of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, were exempted.

Towns along the Atlantic coast that opposed opening the area to offshore drilling worried about the environmental and economic impacts of a disaster like the BP oil spill, which devastated Gulf communities in 2010 and caused lasting negative impacts for the area’s fishing and tourism industries. According to a 2015 report from the Center for a Blue Economy, the “ocean economy” — including tourism and fishing — accounted for $14.6 billion in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

“East Coast communities can finally take a well-deserved sigh of relief knowing that their ocean and economies are currently spared from dangerous seismic airgun blasting,” Oceana’s Douglass said.

It’s possible that incoming President-elect Donald Trump — who has billed himself as a friend of fossil fuels and promised to expand offshore drilling — could reverse today’s decision, allowing seismic blasting to move forward in the Atlantic. But doing so would fly in the face of established science, argues Jasny.

“The science [on seismic airgun blasting] has become, with each passing year, more and more indicative of serious population-level harm on a wide variety of marine species resulting from this activity,” he said. “If the Trump administration wants to run ragged over science and fact, then we will see them in court.”