Federal ruling greeted by  protest from elected reps. and environmental groups

(Dec. 7, 2018) The Trump Administration last Friday granted five “incidental harassment authorizations,” or IHAs, which gives private companies permission to use seismic airgun blasts to search for fossil fuels buried beneath the sea floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

The technique, which has drawn bipartisan opposition, uses a specialized air gun to blast the seafloor every 10 seconds for weeks at a time, possibly to detriment of marine mammals. The blasts are so powerful they penetrate rock layers beneath the sea floor, and can travel through the ocean for thousands of kilometers.


air gun blasts can penetrate rock layers beneath the sea floor, and can travel through the ocean for thousands of kilometers.

By analyzing the rebounding signal that bounces back from the blast, scientists can determine what is beneath the surface and detect the presence of oil or natural gas.

Permits were issued by the fisheries office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which claims it has been assured the testing would not jeopardize endangered or threatened species. These permits give those five companies permission to work in an area spanning from southern New Jersey to central Florida.

This is the second attempt by the Trump Administration to encourage offshore drilling off the East Coast. On April 28, 2017, President Trump signed Executive Order 13797, aimed at expanding offshore drilling and exploration in U.S. waters. The Department of the Interior reversed a decision made in January 2017 to deny seismic airgun blasting permits in an area twice the size of California, stretching from Delaware to Florida, in response to the executive order.

Seismic surveys have not been conducted in the region for at least 30 years.

“Since I oppose offshore drilling for oil off the Maryland coast, I am also opposed to seismic exploration in that area as well,” Maryland Congressman Andy Harris (R-1st) said. “However, according to the plans for the seismic exploration, all efforts will be made to minimize the effect on marine mammal and fish life in the area.”

Survey vessels will be required to have observers on board to listen and watch for marine life and alert operators if a protected species comes within a certain distance, officials said, and acoustic monitoring will be used to detect those swimming beneath the ocean surface.

Surveys will be shut down when certain sensitive species or groups are observed and penalties can be imposed for vessels that strike marine animals, officials said.

However, these measures are not enough for several organizations and officials in Maryland who oppose seismic testing because of what they see as a threat to ecosystems that outweighs potential benefits.

“This action flies in the face of massive opposition to offshore drilling and exploration from over 90 percent of coastal municipalities in the proposed blast zone,” Diane Hoskins, campaign director at Oceana, said in a press release. “These permits were already denied because of the known harm that seismic airgun blasting causes. President Trump is essentially giving these companies permission to harass, harm and possibly even kill marine life, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale – all in the pursuit of dirty and dangerous offshore oil.”

Republican State Senator-elect Mary Beth Carozza also opposes the testing, calling for bipartisan support against the permits.

“I will continue to oppose seismic air gun testing off the Mid-Atlantic coast as it places a great deal of risk on Maryland’s coastal region and state economy” Carozza said. “There are approximately 100,000 jobs in the fishing, tourism, and recreation sectors in Maryland that are directly dependent on the resources which would be threatened by the seismic air gun testing proposals. There is a significant body of peer-reviewed science indicating that seismic air gun blasting can have a negative impact on marine life, especially affecting our fisheries and oyster industries.”

In 2016, Carozza signed a letter with over 40 legislators from Maryland and Delaware sent to the U.S. Department of Interior calling on the federal government to prevent seismic air gun testing. 

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh joined a coalition of attorneys general from other coastal states who also object to this kind of testing.

“The Trump Administration’s grant of these authorizations is misguided and unlawful,” Frosh said in a press release. “In opening the door to harassment of tens of thousands of marine mammals, including endangered species, the administration has again placed the interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of our irreplaceable natural resources.  We will continue to fight these and other efforts to open the waters off our coast to offshore drilling for oil and gas.”

Tens of thousands of whales and dolphins, and thousands of manatees, seals and sea turtles, could be harmed by the seismic exploration project across 200,000 miles square miles of ocean between Delaware and Cape Canaveral in Florida, according to estimates from the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

The proposal to open vast areas of the mid-Atlantic coast to seismic airgun testing has also roused opposition from local environmental advocacy groups, including Assateague Coastal Trust.

“The risks associated with just the surveying alone far outweigh the benefits that would come from this,” Billy Weiland, communications manager for ACT, said. “It’s estimated there’s less than a year’s supply worth of oil and gas deposits in the areas they’re proposing to do this.”

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