Environmentalists spent the weekend bemoaning the abdication of U.S. leadership on climate change, only to find out Monday morning that the Trump administration has tentatively approved seismic testing off the Eastern Seaboard, the first step towards drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.
The approval, set to be published Tuesday in the Federal Register, specifically allows “the incidental, but not intentional, taking of small numbers of marine mammals” by five companies seeking to test the waters of the Atlantic for oil reserves. Seismic testing is a method for determining the composition of the ocean floor by tracking the reverberations of extremely loud sonic booms underwater. The practice is known to disrupt aquatic life, including fish, sea turtles, and mammals such as whales, and an “incidental take” permit is required.
Michael Jasny, director of the marine mammal protection project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the noise created is like “throwing dynamite” into the water and called it “a serious assault” on ocean life.
The permits cover the Atlantic Ocean from the New Jersey-Delaware border to the middle of Florida. Testing could be conducted over the next year in federal waters, which begin three miles off the coast. The final approval is pending a 30-day public comment period.
An Obama-era proposal to drill off the Southeast states — Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia — was roundly rejected by local communities. Fishermen, business groups, and environmentalists have all emphasized that drilling would jeopardize the multi-billion-dollar coastal economy. “You’re going to affect just about everyone who goes fishing in the ocean,” Rick Baumann, who owns South Carolina’s Murrells Inlet Seafood, said on the call.
“We are dead set against it,” Baumann said. “Obama heard us, BOEM heard us… Now Mr. Trump is just going on his own little path, and we need to let him know we will not stand for it — and we won’t.”
There are some seasonal restrictions for the permits. For instance, right whales’ calving season takes place during the winter off the coasts of the Carolinas and Georgia. In the summer, they travel north and forage off the coast of Massachusetts. Parts of both those areas are considered critical habitats by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and seismic testing in the breeding area is limited under the proposed permit from November to April.
But Doug Nowacek, a marine scientist from Duke University, said that right whales have been detected off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, from October to April. The area around Cape Hatteras is not included in NOAA’s critical habitat designation for right whales, nor is seismic testing prohibited there during any season.
Seismic testing has been shown to disrupt right whales mating, communication, and feeding behaviors, Nowacek said. “Sound and hearing are of transcendent importance” for marine mammals, “essential for their ability to survive and reproduce,” he said. The Atlantic has a plethora of wildlife that will be affected by seismic testing. Noting that there are 40 to 50 charter fishing boats that go off Cape Hatteras every day, he said it was “sort of like the Serengeti of the Atlantic.”
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has said the testing will enable the department to take “inventory” of what fossil fuel reserves the United States has, but even the Department of Defense has opposed drilling in the Atlantic.
And the step towards seismic testing is clearly a step towards drilling for oil. It follows an executive order from President Donald Trump that calls for opening up the Atlantic Ocean as well as parts of the Arctic and Pacific oceans to drilling.
“This threat is real and it’s coming fast,” Nancy Pyne, campaign director at Oceana said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress. “Coastal communities have the most to lose, but unfortunately their overwhelming opposition may be ignored by the Trump administration. The threats of seismic airgun blasting alone are bad enough, but it’s also the first step to offshore drilling, which could lead to the industrialization of coastal communities and the risk of another BP Deepwater Horizon-like disaster.”