OCEAN CITY — The battle against seismic air gun testing for offshore oil and gas reserves began anew late last week after the Trump administration authorized as many as five permits to private companies for the potentially dangerous practice.
Last Friday, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced it had issued it final Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) permits allowing five private sector companies to begin the potentially dangerous practice of seismic air gun testing for oil and gas reserves in the mid-Atlantic, including vast areas off the Ocean City coast. As the name implies, the permits allow for the incidental harassment of marine life off the coast during the testing process including dolphins, whales and other species, for example.
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.
Last year, 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. Last week, the administration took another important step in expediting the plan to explore and potentially drill for oil and gas reserves off the mid-Atlantic coast with the approval of five IHA 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. Fierce opposition to the plan to utilize seismic air gun testing to search for oil and gas reserves off the Atlantic coast also came from a variety of other sources, including Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, who joined a coalition of Attorneys General from other states up and down the in firing off a letter against the approval of the permits. With the approval of the five IHA permits last week, Frosh quickly renewed his opposition.
“The Trump administration’s grant of these authorizations is misguided and unlawful,” he said. “In opening the door to harassment of tens of thousands of marine mammals, including endangered species, the administration has once 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.”
The proposal to open vast areas of the mid-Atlantic coast to seismic air gun testing has also drawn the ire of dozens of national and regional environmental advocacy groups. With last Friday’s announcement, many of those groups renewed their opposition including Oceana, whose Campaign Director Diane Hoskins said the issuance of the permits disregards the public’s disdain for the practice.
“This action flies in the face of massive opposition to offshore drilling and exploration from over 90 percent of the coastal municipalities in the proposed blast zone,” she said. “These permits were already denied because of the known harm that seismic air gun blasting causes.”
Hoskins warned of the potential dangers to marine life, despite the administration’s claims seismic air gun testing is benign for marine life.
“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,” she said. “This is the first step toward offshore drilling in the Atlantic and we’re going to make sure coastal communities know what’s happening and fight this.”
Closer to home, Environment Maryland wasted no time making its displeasure with the issuance of the IHA permits known. Environment Maryland Oceans Associate Kelsey Lamp pointed out the IHA permits were the second to last step in permitting seismic testing off the mid-Atlantic coast. If the Department of the Interior follows suit and issues the permits as expected, the companies holding the permits could begin testing as soon as April.
“When the administration proposed drilling off of 90 percent of America’s coasts, the public said ‘no way,’” she said. “Yet it is feverishly pursuing seismic testing, which threatens marine wildlife, all for the pursuit of oil that we don’t need as more people adopt clean energy. We need the administration to halt these plans ASAP. Given our clean energy alternatives, we need to embrace policies that are better for marine ecosystems and supported by the American public.”