The Trump administration authorized five companies on Friday to use seismic testing in the search for oil and gas deposits in waters off the U.S. East Coast, a decision that could harm tens of thousands of dolphins, whales, and other marine animals.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will allow the companies to use seismic airguns to explore for oil and gas in federal waters from Delaware to central Florida.
Along with the great harm caused to marine life, the approvals — known as incidental harassment authorizations — represent the next step to allowing offshore oil and gas drilling, environmental groups warned.
“Seismic testing is nothing but a precursor to offshore drilling that no one in the Southeast wants,” Catherine Wannamaker, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), said Friday in a conference call with reporters.
Starting in January 2019, after Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) leaves office, all of the Atlantic Coast governors will have issued statements in opposition to opening the waters to oil and gas production.
“This is just a great example of the Trump administration turning its back on [coastal] communities,” said Wannamaker, who said the SELC will review its options, including whether to file a lawsuit against the Trump administration for authorizing the seismic testing.
The Obama administration denied six permits for seismic testing weeks before Trump took office in 2017 out of concern for wildlife and fisheries.
Seismic testing, or seismic airgun blasting, involves blasting the seafloor with airguns to search for oil and natural gas. 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 companies that received the authorizations are: TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Co. Asa; Schlumberger Ltd. subsidiary; WesternGeco Ltd., CGG Services US Inc.; Spectrum Geo Inc.; and a unit of ION Geophysical Corp.
The companies still must secure permits from the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) before they can start seismic testing.
BOEM’s acting director, Walter Cruickshank, has indicated his agency plans to issue the permits within two weeks of action by the Fisheries Service, Michael Jasny, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s marine mammal protection project, said Friday on the conference call.
“Those permits are a fait accompli,” Jasny said.
The companies will be allowed to conduct seismic testing near the calving habitat of the endangered North Atlantic right whales off the cost of northern Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.
The right whale population currently stands at about 410. According to estimates, between 20 and 30 right whales have died since April 2017.
The loud, continuous and far-reaching noise from seismic testing can damage the hearing and potentially kill the right whales.
“The Trump administration is giving the oil industry permission to launch a brutal sonic assault on North Atlantic right whales and other wildlife,” Kristen Monsell, ocean program legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said Friday in a statement.
The airgun blasts will injure and kill marine animals and “are the gateway to opening the East Coast to offshore drilling and toxic oil spills,” Monsell warned.
Issued under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the authorizations allow the companies “to incidentally, but not intentionally, harass marine mammals” as they “conduct geophysical surveys in support of hydrocarbon exploration in the Atlantic Ocean,” the National Marine Fisheries Service said Friday in a statement.
The authorizations require monitoring, reporting, and mitigation measures to reduce the impacts of survey activities on marine mammals, the agency said.
“It’s awfully ironic to see this a few days after the release of a report on why we need to stop drilling for fossil fuels at breakneck speed,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) said in a statement responding to the approvals. “There is nothing this administration won’t do for the fossil fuel industry, including destroying local economies and ruining endangered species habitats.”
The House Natural Resources Committee, which Grijalva will chair starting in January 2019, “is going to provide serious checks and balances on this behavior from day one in the next Congress,” he said.