Feds Take Seismic Air Gun Testing Off Table

OCEAN CITY — Federal officials announced on Friday a controversial plan to allow dangerous seismic air gun testing in a vast section off the mid-Atlantic coast including an area as close as 20 miles off the coast of Ocean City has been removed from consideration.

With a proposal to lease a vast area totaling roughly three million acres off the mid-Atlantic coast to offshore drilling for oil and natural gas reserves already taken off the table last spring, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) announced on Friday a companion plan to open the same area to seismic airgun testing has been denied.

Seismic airgun testing is used to determine what oil and natural gas reserves lie beneath the ocean floor. However, once the plan to allow offshore drilling off the mid-Atlantic coast was removed from consideration, at least for the next five years, BOEM officials determined there was no good reason to allow potentially dangerous seismic testing in the same areas off the mid-Atlantic coast including Ocean City and Assateague, for example.

“In the present circumstances and guided by an abundance of caution, we believe that the value of obtaining the geophysical and geological information from new airgun seismic surveys in the Atlantic does not outweigh the potential risks of those surveys’ acoustic pulse impacts on marine life,” said BOEM Director Abigail Hopper on Friday. “Since federal waters in the mid- and south-Atlantic have been removed from leasing consideration for the next five years, there is no immediate need for these surveys.”

In mid-March, 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 whose economies rely on clean oceans, healthy natural resources, tourism and commercial and recreational fishing.

However, left on the table was a 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.

BOEM had accepted six lease proposals from private sector companies to conduct seismic testing in the Atlantic from Delaware to Florida in an offshore area roughly the size of California. While the proposed plan to open the offshore areas to drilling was abandoned, seismic air gun testing for those same reserves remained a real threat until Friday’s announcement.

With offshore drilling off the table, BOEM ultimately decided there was no good reason to allow seismic airgun testing at this time. According to reputable scientific reports, a seismic air gun shoots a blast of sound into the ocean floor, each of which is an estimated 100,000 times more intense than the sound of a jet engine. If approved, vessels would tow as many as 30 air guns, which would be fired every 10 seconds continuously 24 hours a day and seven days a week for the duration of the mapping exercise, which could last for several weeks.

The concern is the impact of the seismic testing on marine life in the test areas and the unacceptable risk of serious harm to some species that are staples in the resorts multi-million dollar recreational and commercial fishing industries, the full extent of which will not likely be understood until long after the harm occurs.

With the announcement on Friday that the six leases for seismic airgun testing off the mid-Atlantic coast had been denied, already environmental groups were applauding the decision.

“Today, we thank the Obama administration for finishing the job in protecting the Atlantic Ocean from offshore drilling activities,” said Oceana Campaign Director Claire Douglass. “East coast communities can now take a well-deserved sigh of relief knowing that their ocean and economies are currently spared from dangerous seismic air gun blasting.”

Coastal communities up and down the east coast including Ocean City, Berlin and Fenwick Island locally, formally opposed seismic airgun testing from the beginning. That opposition continued when over 40 legislators from Maryland and Delaware sent a letter to Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell calling on the federal government to abandon the idea of seismic air gun testing off the mid-Atlantic coast. The letter, signed locally by Delegates Mary Beth Carozza and Charles Otto, along with 40 other state Delegates and Senators, essentially thanked BOEM for abandoning plans to drill offshore, but urged the federal agency to cease moving forward with seismic air gun testing leases.

Before Friday’s announcement, 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 had publicly opposed seismic air gun testing off the mid-Atlantic coast. Closer to home, the towns of Ocean City and Berlin had adopted formal resolutions opposing the practice.