Trump administration nears decision that sets stage for offshore drilling in the Atlantic

Shell's seismic vessel MV Gilavar conducts air gun seismic tests in the Chukchi Sea in September 2009. The company plans to drill exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas this summer on the basis of seismic work done in 2007-2009. Scientists have been studying the impact of the intense underwater sounds on marine mammals and other animals.
Shell's seismic vessel MV Gilavar conducts air gun seismic tests in the Chukchi Sea in September 2009. The company plans to drill exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas this summer on the basis of seismic work done in 2007-2009. Scientists have been studying the impact of the intense underwater sounds on marine mammals and other animals. Shell Alaska

Environmental groups are bracing for the Trump administration to approve controversial testing along the Eastern seaboard that would mark a significant step toward offshore drilling in waters off the coast of Florida all the way north to the Delaware Bay.

Five geophysical survey companies are seeking federal permission to shoot pressurized air blasts into the ocean every 10 to 12 seconds around the clock for weeks and months at a time, seeking fossil fuel deposits beneath the Atlantic Ocean floor.

The testing, which would cover 330,000 square miles of ocean, faces fierce opposition from environmental groups and local officials due to the possible economic and environmental effects.

Because the underwater blasts are louder than a Saturn V rocket launch and can be heard by monitoring devices more than 2,500 miles away, scientists fear long-term exposure to the noise could cause hearing loss and impair breeding, feeding, foraging and communication activity among dolphins, endangered whales, other marine mammals and sea turtles.

Some worry the blasts could cause mother whales and their calves to become separated. Commercial and recreational fisheries could also be affected if fish change their breeding and spawning habits to avoid the noise. Others fear disoriented marine life could collide with the vessels that tug the air guns or become entangled in their lines. Oceana, an international conservation group, estimates that 138,000 marine mammals could be injured in the testing process.

To cap off his 100 days in office, Trump signed an executive order that will expand offshore oil drilling in federal waters and open other areas that were previously off limits to new oil and gas exploration.

Seventy-five marine scientists asked the Obama administration in 2015 to reject seismic air gun testing in the Atlantic because of these threats. Twenty-eight marine biologists did the same in 2016 over concerns that testing would harm the estimated 500 endangered North Atlantic right whales.

“That’s the species we are most concerned about,” said Doug Nowacek, associate professor of conservation technology at the Duke University Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, North Carolina. “They are in decline. They live coastally along the U.S. They were hunted (by whalers) and they were slowly recovering. And now they're starting to decline again.”

These and other concerns are why the survey companies must first obtain Incidental Harassment Authorizations from the National Marine Fisheries Service and final approval from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management before the testing can begin.

In a Jan. 23 letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service, trade groups representing the oil and gas and geophysical services industries said seismic testing is the “most effective, commercially available technology” to find oil and gas deposits.

The public comment period on the IHA applications ended in July, and most stakeholders say they think the geophysical survey companies’ authorizations are inevitable.

“They could reject them, but that is unlikely. It basically has never happened. Even under other administrations,” said Lara Levison, Oceana’s senior director for federal policy.

To better protect marine life, Oceana and groups such as the Marine Mammal Commission, the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club want additional safeguards and restrictions on testing vessels than those already proposed by the federal government.

To protect Atlantic spotted dolphins, for instance, the National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed banning seismic testing south of Cape Hatteras from June through August. The Marine Mammal Commission wants that extended through September.

To protect deep-diving whales, a proposal from the National Marine Fisheries Service calls for testing to cease if a diving sperm whale is spotted at any distance in front of the testing vessel or a beaked whale is seen or acoustically observed at any distance. The commission recommends that shutdowns occur if sperm whales are detected visually or by passive acoustic equipment as well.

And in order to protect North Atlantic right whales, the group also wants to expand a “closure area” north of Cape Hatteras between November and April.

Not all experts agree that the testing poses an inherent danger. James A. Knapp, a geophysicist at the University of South Carolina School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment, said no marine mammals have been found to have died from the effects of seismic testing, which has been conducted in the Gulf of Mexico for many years.

But because he’s not a marine biologist, Knapp said he doesn’t know if marine mammals’ hearing is affected by the tests.

Nowacek, however, said many studies have found evidence that marine mammals’ behavior has been altered and commercial fishing catch rates have declined in areas where seismic testing occurs.

While Nowacek said no one has looked at the effects of seismic testing on marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico, a recent study by Australian researchers found that sound waves generated by air guns harm microscopic plankton, which larger, commercially harvested fish often feed on. (Knapp argued that that study was “hopelessly flawed’ because it was based on measurements taken on two consecutive days, which is insufficient to draw any conclusions.)

Seismic testing became a moot issue after President Barack Obama removed the Atlantic Ocean from the nation’s five-year program for oil and gas development in March 2016. Later that year, Obama also barred drilling in environmentally sensitive areas of the Atlantic from Virginia to Maine.

Then, in one of its final acts, the Obama administration in January 2017 denied all pending Atlantic Ocean testing permits.

The actions marked a retreat from Obama’s previous support for offshore Atlantic exploration, after more than 100 local governments along the Eastern seaboard and nearly 1,200 elected officials in the region formally opposed oil and gas development as a threat to local economies centered on tourism and commercial and recreational fishing.

President Trump signed an executive order in April that would reverse these policies. Trump’s “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy” would make available millions of acres of federal coastal waters for oil and gas leasing. It also would streamline the application process for granting seismic testing permits.

Legislation in Congress — The Streamlining Environmental Approvals Act of 2017, HR 3133 — would also make obtaining IHAs easier.

“Though Obama Administration told me on multiple occasions in public committee hearings that they could not identify a single scientifically verifiable instance where a seismic survey significantly damaged or killed a marine mammal, they still played politics,” said a statement from Jeff Duncan, (R-SC), another co-sponsor of the bill. “They used loopholes in the permitting review process to bait seismic survey companies into financial uncertainty, until finally pulling the rug out from underneath them in the twilight of Obama’s presidency. The SEA Act reforms these ambiguities to limit the abuse of power. It sets a clear permitting time framework so a company will know whether they will be accepted or denied in a timely manner—no more limbo.”

Since 2009, the oil and gas industry has been Duncan’s top industry contributor — $165,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Another co-sponsor of the bill, Rep. David Rouzer, R-NC, whose coastal district encompasses Wilmington, said in a statement that he supports exploration that’s beyond the view of the coastline.

“The potential for thousands of good paying jobs throughout Southeastern North Carolina, the unique opportunity to properly fund our waterway and inlet dredging, and the ability to address the long-term needs of beach restoration and nourishment as well as other infrastructure needs in our coastal communities are just a few of the potential major benefits at the local level that merit strong consideration of off-shore exploration,” Rouzer wrote.

Levison, of Oceana, said the proposed legislation would “eviscerate protections for marine mammals.”

“If this bill were to pass next week and President Trump signed it into law, then the (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) would have little recourse than to simply issue (IHA) permits because agency scientists would have very little ability to require protections for marine mammals,” Levison said.