The Trump administration announced it will consider issuing permits for seismic testing off the Eastern Seaboard as part of its efforts to open U.S. waters to drilling.
Seismic testing is an oil and gas discovery method that uses extremely loud noises to determine seafloor composition and has been linked to negative impacts on fish and marine mammals. The six permits the Department of the Interior will reconsider were rejected by the Obama administration in January, after proposed areas for drilling off the Southeast U.S. coast were removed from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s five-year plan. “Seismic surveying helps a variety of federal and state partners better understand our nation’s offshore areas, including locating offshore hazards, siting of wind turbines, as well as offshore energy development,” Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said in a statement. “Allowing this scientific pursuit enables us to safely identify and evaluate resources that belong to the American people.”
During the announcement last week of President Donald Trump’s executive order on offshore drilling, Zinke told reporters that he wants to know what oil resources the country might have offshore.
But there are a lot of people — including the man who developed seismic testing — who don’t believe the practice is safe for wildlife or coastal communities. In denying the original permits, former BOEM director Abigail Ross Hopper wrote that “the value of obtaining the information from the surveys does not outweigh the risks of obtaining said information,” especially since the area was removed from drilling plans.
“None of the facts have changed,” said Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, an organization whose members include more than 41,000 business and 500,000 commercial fishing families up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Knapp questioned why the administration was reconsidering the permits now: “We’re basically now making decisions based on who is in office,” not on the scientific findings. When the Obama administration first proposed leasing parts of the non-Gulf Atlantic for oil drilling and seismic testing, it set off a firestorm of opposition. Hundreds of coastal communities passed resolutions against drilling and testing, and the public became much more educated on the risks of the practice.
“The right whale is almost extinct,” Knapp told ThinkProgress.
And seismic testing wouldn’t do the right whale any favors. A set of maps developed by the ocean advocacy group Oceana found that, under permit applications submitted during the Obama administration, the entire breeding area for the North Atlantic right whale would be impacted. The federal National Marine Fisheries Service says “noise from industrial activities” is a threat to the right whale, which is endangered throughout its habitat.
Research also indicates sperm whales have shown negative responses to seismic testing, Ingrid Biedron, a marine scientist with Oceana, told ThinkProgress. Other studies have shown that cod and haddock catches — food for both whales and humans — declined by 40 to 80 percent during seismic testing conducted in the Barents Sea.
The proposed seismic testing in the Atlantic would cover significant portions of the habitats and breeding grounds for loggerhead turtles, swordfish, cod, wahoo, and yellowfin tuna.
“We are opposed to seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic because of the large impacts to marine ecosystems and marine life,” Biedron said. But marine life is also intricately tied to human life.
“Seismic airgun blasting can threaten communities,” she said.
A 2015 report from Center for a Blue Economy, commissioned by the Southern Environmental Law Center, found that nearly a quarter-million jobs in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia were related to the ocean in 2012, including fishing, tourism, and recreation. The “ocean economy” accounted for $14.6 billion of economic activity, the economists found.
“I am concerned about seismic testing for many reasons,” North Carolina-based commercial fisherman Chris McCaffity, a member of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, told ThinkProgress in an email. “One reason is that seismic testing scares fish away from blast zones. This can make it harder to catch fish that are in season during test periods.” He pointed out that seismic testing will also affect his customers.
“I have NO confidence that Big Oil or Big Brother have [the] coastal community’s best interest in mind”
“Another big reason I oppose seismic testing and offshore drilling at this time is that I have NO confidence that Big Oil or Big Brother have [the] coastal community’s best interest in mind,” he wrote. He said that other methods of testing that have “far fewer negative impacts on marine life and fishermen” should be required.
A bipartisan group of House recently introduced a bill restricting seismic testing, but legal experts seemed to agree that the most effective way of preventing seismic testing in the Atlantic will be — again — an outpouring of opposition from coastal communities.
In fact, when the original applications were rejected in January, the six companies that had applied to do seismic testing challenged the decision in court, but the Southern Environmental Law Center, Oceana, the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, and the Natural Resources Defense Council have all filed as intervenors in that case. Link to filing
“There’s a lot of folks out there talking about how do we protect our coasts,” SELC lawyer Sierra Weaver told ThinkProgress. And in order to issue permits, BOEM will again have to go through a public review process. If that happens, Weaver said, the fight still won’t be over.
“Given the amount of interest we have seen in these issues, you can almost guarantee that litigation would be likely,” Weaver said.