State Attorney Generals Join Seismic Testing Opposition

OCEAN CITY — Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, along with eight of his peers from mid-Atlantic states, late last week fired off a letter opposing proposed seismic air gun testing for offshore oil and natural gas reserves, adding to the groundswell of opposition to the potentially dangerous practice.

In late April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order reopening vast areas off the mid-Atlantic coast to offshore oil exploration and drilling, renewing a years-long battle that resulted in the previous administration reversing the plan. In June, the Trump administration took initial steps in expediting the plan to explore and potentially drill for oil and gas reserves off the mid-Atlantic coast when he authorized the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to issue as many as five Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) permits which, if approved, would allow the private sector companies awarded the permits to begin the dangerous practice of seismic air gun testing.

The proposal to open the mid-Atlantic region to seismic testing renewed an opposition effort from nearly all stakeholders up and down the east coast. An alliance representing over 41,000 businesses and half a million fishing families, along with over 120 east coast municipalities, including Ocean City and Berlin, for example, have publicly opposed seismic testing and offshore drilling in the mid-Atlantic.

In addition, numerous environmental advocacy groups throughout the region, including the Assateague Coastal Trust locally, came out against the plan during the Obama administration’s initiative, which was successfully pulled from the table, and that effort has been renewed now that the Trump administration has restarted the process.

Last Friday, Frosh and eight of his peers from Atlantic states including Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, along with Washington D.C., fired off a strongly worded letter to NMFS urging the agency to deny the permits and halt the seismic air gun testing process anew.

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Frosh this week called the proposal a “foolish gamble” after sending the letter written under his office’s letterhead.

“The proposed seismic tests themselves are disruptive and harmful,” he said. “Worse, they are precursors to offshore drilling that would put the Chesapeake Bay at risk to drilling-related contamination. That contamination would have catastrophic impacts on fragile ecosystems and important economies. This is a foolish gamble with our precious natural resources.”

Seismic air gun testing is used to determine what oil and natural gas reserves lie beneath the ocean floor. Seismic air guns essentially shoot blasts of compressed air 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 letter from the coalition of Attorneys Generals points out the groundswell of opposition to the plan from an environmental and economic standpoint.

“These risks have prompted more than 120 east coast communities, including the city of Baltimore and Ocean City as well as many local, state and federal elected officials to formally oppose oil and gas exploration, including seismic survey activities,” the letter reads. “More than 35,000 businesses and 500,000 commercial fishing families along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida oppose seismic testing and offshore oil and gas drilling exploration because it threatens the coastal ecosystem on which 1.4 million commercial fishing, tourism and recreation jobs depend.”

The Attorney’s Generals’ letter also points out air gun blasting can cause disruptions in migration, feeding and reproduction of marine mammals, fish and other marine creatures on the ocean floor and urges NMFS to deny the five permit applications.

“The harassment of marine life to be authorized under this proposal is unjustified and unwarranted,” the letter reads. “The proposed seismic surveys present risks to the affected regions that far outweigh and benefit. Accordingly, all five pending applications should be denied.”

The letter was met with applause from several environmental and resources protection groups including the Surfrider Foundation. Ocean City Surfrider Foundation chapter treasurer Jane Robinson said the potential seismic testing off Maryland’s coast could harm the fragile ecosystem and the vast tourism economy that depends on it.

“The Ocean City chapter of Surfrider Foundation is thrilled that the Attorney General is leading the fight against seismic testing in Maryland,” said chapter treasurer Jane Robinson. “We can’t afford to jeopardize the tourist economy that is based on the natural resources of the Eastern Shore. The fact he has brought together eight of his peers shows the widespread opposition to the practice.”

In general, the Surfrider Foundation also applauded the Attorneys General letter, pointing out any potential benefits do not outweigh the risks.

“Surfrider Foundation opposes seismic testing and the oil and gas exploration that will follow it because we know it is not the answer,” he said. “The damage this can cause to marine mammals, fish and even zooplankton are not with the risk. Clean water and healthy beaches are far more valuable economically than any oil and gas deposits offshore.”

The letter from Frosh and the coalition of Attorneys General comes on the heels of a similar filed with NMFS from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) earlier this month urging NMFS to abandon the renewed effort to open up the mid-Atlantic to offshore oil exploration and extraction. In early July, Maryland’s U.S. Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen urged Governor Larry Hogan to intercede on the state’s behalf.

The DNR letter to NMFS that followed was in response to that request. Cardin and Van Hollen urged Hogan to strongly oppose the proposed seismic air gun testing, or at the very least urge the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to properly vet the proposal through the statutorily mandated Coastal Zone Management Act. The letter from DNR Secretary Mark Belton last week does just that.

“Our concerns include potential impacts to the commercial and recreational fisheries, and the health and welfare of marine mammals and wildlife,” the letter reads. “Maryland municipalities such as Ocean City and Berlin have also expressed their objections through local resolutions against seismic testing that show cause for further consultation and review. Furthermore, both from an economic and environmental perspective, the Hogan administration has serious concerns with seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean and is opposed to offshore drilling off our coast.”

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.