States Threaten Offshore Seismic Testing Lawsuit

OCEAN CITY — Opposition to proposed seismic air gun testing off the mid-Atlantic coast gained momentum last week when Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh and eight of his colleagues threatened a lawsuit to stop the potentially dangerous practice.

Frosh announced during a press conference last Thursday he and the attorneys general of eight other Atlantic coast states were formally opposing the proposed seismic air gun testing off the mid-Atlantic coast for offshore oil and gas exploration. Just a day later, Gov. Larry Hogan authorized the state of Maryland to join a lawsuit to halt dangerous seismic air gun testing.

In late November, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced it had issued its 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. The blasts are estimated to be 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.

During his press conference last week, Frosh claimed seismic air gun testing off the mid-Atlantic coast was short-sighted because the potential dangers to the fragile ecosystems outweighed any negligible benefit.

“Seismic testing will have dangerous consequences for hundreds of thousands of marine mammals, including endangered species,” said Frosh. “While the administration continues to place the interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of our precious natural resources, attorneys general up and down the Atlantic coast will continue to fight these and other efforts to open the waters off our shores to drilling for oil and gas.”

By year’s end, Hogan and his colleagues on the east coast followed suit in the opposition to the exploration for oil and gas reserves off the coast.

“As governor, I take my role as a steward of our environment extremely seriously,” he said. “We have made incredible progress in improving our air and water quality standards, and we are not going to let misguided policies from the federal government jeopardize our hard work. Maryland will continue to fight against this sort of federal government overreach that threatens our natural resources and coastal communities.”

Delaware Gov. John Carney voiced similar concerns for the coastal communities in his state.

“Drilling in the Atlantic would pose significant threats to Delaware’s natural resources and our economy,” said Carney. “I am proud to stand with fellow Atlantic state governors in opposition to seismic testing and drilling for oil and gas off our coasts. There’s too much at risk for Delaware and the Atlantic Seaboard to allow this to go unchallenged.”

Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Secretary Mark Belton expressed concern about the cumulative impacts on the marine species and habitat in Maryland.

“Maryland remains steadfast in its opposition to offshore oil and gas development and exploration in the Atlantic Ocean due to the fact that it unnecessarily endangers marine life and water quality, and exposes our communities and commerce to harm,” said Belton. “We strongly believe that these actions by the federal government pose greater risk than we are willing to assume in the backyard of one of our nation’s most iconic natural places – the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays.”

Last month’s strong opposition to seismic testing from leaders in Maryland and Delaware along with other coastal states following a coalition of nine environmental advocacy groups, most notably the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceana, the Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation among others, filing suit in U.S. District Court seeking to force NMFS to reverse its issuance of the five IHA permits. The federal suit also seeks to force NMFS to essentially admit the agency has violated several longstanding federal policies including the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policies Act.

The 46-page complaint filed this week in U.S. District Court goes into great detail about the various ways scientific research has allegedly shown seismic air gun testing has proven to be harmful to marine mammals and other species.

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.