Offshore Seismic Testing Defeated In Federal Court; Maryland AG Spearheaded Legal Challenge

Offshore Seismic Testing Defeated In Federal Court; Maryland AG Spearheaded Legal Challenge
File photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — The mid-Atlantic coast, including Ocean City, is safe from potentially-dangerous offshore seismic air gun testing for the foreseeable future after a federal judge this week dismissed a lawsuit on key testing permits.

In 2017, the Trump administration issued an executive order opening vast areas off the east coast, including the mid-Atlantic region and Ocean City, to seismic air gun testing as a means to explore oil and natural gas reserves under the ocean floor. By way of background, seismic testing and offshore drilling for oil and natural gas off the Atlantic coast was first proposed during the Obama administration, but was reversed under intense opposition from coastal communities up and down the eastern seaboard along with a coalition of environmental advocacy groups.

In 2017, 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 2018, 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.

However, while the five private-sector companies held the IHA permits, they still needed approval from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to proceed with seismic testing. That resulted in a multi-state, including Maryland, federal lawsuit seeking to stop BOEM from issuing the final permits for seismic testing. On Tuesday, a federal judge issued a conditional dismissal of the lawsuit after the defendants, in this case the five private sector companies, conceded the IHA permits they hold are set to expire next month.

The long and short of it is, seismic air gun testing in the mid-Atlantic region will not take place this year or in the foreseeable future, if ever. Should the seismic testing companies pursue permits in the future, the entire complicated review and permitting process would have to start anew. Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, who spearheaded the state’s inclusion in the suit, applauded the federal judge’s ruling.

“Today’s court order means the Trump Administration’s plans to open the Atlantic Coast to seismic testing, a precursor to offshore drilling, is dead in the water,” he said. “We must move forward to develop clean, safe, and environmentally-friendly energy sources.  If this administration attempts to move forward again, we will return to court to protect the health of the Chesapeake Bay and our vulnerable Atlantic Coast shoreline.”

The federal judge’s ruling was also met with applause from the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

“At the National Aquarium, it is our mission to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures,” the statement reads. “The 160 decibels produced by seismic airgun blasting under water is louder than a rock concert and could cause undue harm to the natural environment and hundreds of marine species from fish to whales.”

The National Aquarium vowed to remain out front in the battle against future seismic testing, and ultimately oil and natural gas excavation in the mid-Atlantic area including Ocean City.

“Seismic blasting is the precursor to new oil and gas exploration and drilling in federal waters that would pose unnecessary and unacceptable risks to our coastal communities, our economic future and our national heritage,” the statement reads. “We voiced these concerns alongside other diverse stakeholders and elected leaders when this lawsuit was filed, and we are pleased that this latest attempt to conduct widespread seismic airgun blasting has been defeated.”

Several national and regional environmental advocacy groups also joined the celebration.

“Communities can breathe a little easier knowing the Atlantic is now safe from seismic airgun blasting in 2020,” said Diane Hoskins, Oceana campaign director.  “Today’s much-needed news is a bright spot and in line with the court of public opinion. Over 90 percent of coastal municipalities in the proposed blast zone are opposed to opening our coast to offshore drilling and its dangerous precursor, seismic airgun blasting.”

Hoskins said in the statement Oceana will continue to lead the fight against future testing.

“The expiration of these unlawful permits will finally protect coastal communities and our marine life,” said Hoskins “Oceana has been campaigning for more than a decade to protect our coast from dirty and dangerous offshore drilling activities. We are going to do everything in our power to permanently protect our coasts and ensure dynamite-like blasting never starts.”

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.