Officials Partner To Seek Ban On Offshore Seismic Air Gun Testing

OCEAN CITY — While the Obama administration announced in March it was abandoning plans to open a vast swath of ocean off the mid-Atlantic coast for offshore drilling for oil and natural gas reserves, the threat of seismic air gun blasting remains a very real threat, prompting lawmakers from Maryland and Delaware to fire off a letter this week urging the federal government to ban the controversial practice.

In mid-March, a collective sigh of relief was heard from coastal communities along the east coast when the federal government reversed course on a controversial plan to lease a vast area totaling three million acres off the mid-Atlantic coast for offshore drilling for oil and natural gas reserves. The reversal came after strong opposition to the proposal from local, state and federal elected officials, environmental advocacy groups and hundreds of coastal communities along the east coast whose economies rely on clean oceans, healthy natural resources, tourism and commercial and recreational fishing.

However, left on the table was a federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) proposal to allow private sector companies to utilize potentially harmful seismic air gun testing to determine what oil and gas reserves lay beneath the ocean floor off the mid-Atlantic coast in some areas as close as 20 miles from Ocean City and neighboring Delaware resort communities. While the proposed plan to open the offshore areas to drilling was abandoned, the threat of seismic testing for those same reserves remains a real threat.

Last July, BOEM released its final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for seismic air gun testing in the mid-Atlantic, essentially opining the potential rewards outweigh any possible impact to marine life. While there are still several hurdles to clear before any seismic air guns are blasted into the ocean floor off the resort’s coast, the PEIS represents the federal government’s intention to move forward with the practice despite an outcry of opposition from nearly all corners.

Last week, that opposition continued when over 40 legislators from both Maryland and Delaware sent a letter to Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell calling on the federal government to prevent seismic air gun testing off the mid-Atlantic coast in an area twice the size of California that stretches from Delaware to Florida. The letters, signed locally by Delegates Mary Beth Carozza and Charles Otto, along with 40 other state Delegates and Senators, along with county and local officials, essentially thank BOEM for abandoning plans to allow offshore drilling, but urge the federal agency to cease moving forward with the seismic air gun testing leases.

“Now, it is even more imperative that you reject permits for oil and gas exploration in our region,” the letter reads. “Allowing offshore exploration, and in particular seismic air gun blasting, to move forward would be unnecessarily dangerous and place a great deal of risk on Maryland’s coastal region and state economy.”

The letter from Maryland lawmakers asserts the risks do not outweigh the rewards and as long as the proposal to stop offshore drilling has been removed, there is no good reason to allow the testing given the potential threats to coastal economies.

“There are about 83,000 jobs in the fishing, tourism and recreation sectors in Maryland that are directly dependent on the resources threatened by offshore oil and gas exploration and development, and countless others indirectly dependent on those resources,” the letter reads. “Coastal Marylanders recognize this, from crabbers in the Chesapeake Bay to recreational fishermen to the hard-working Marylanders who are part of our $16 billion tourism industry.”

To date, over 110 communities, 1,000 elected officials and 1,100 businesses along with chambers of commerce, and fisheries organizations including the Billfish Foundation and the International Game Fish Association have publicly opposed seismic air gun testing off the mid-Atlantic coast. Closer to home, the towns of Ocean City and Berlin have adopted formal resolutions opposing the practice. The letter sent by Maryland lawmakers points out the testing poses potential harm to the natural resources that drive coastal economies.

“These positions of opposition are backed by a significant body of peer-reviewed science indicating that seismic air gun blasting can have negative impacts on marine life, from whales to bivalves, which is a cause for concern regarding our oyster industry,” the letter reads. “Allowing seismic air gun surveys for oil and gas deposits could disrupt the spawning, feeding and migration patterns that support our fisheries and replenish fish populations from year to year.”

The same message is loud and clear just across the state line in Delaware where over 40 lawmakers penned a similar letter to Jewell. Dewey Beach Mayor Diane Hanson, one of the lead signers on the Delaware letter, said the coastal community’s economy is at risk.

“Our beaches are world-renowned tourist destinations,” she said. “We cater to millions of visitors each year and contribute over a billion dollars to Delaware’s economy.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.