The Trump administration has begun evaluating permits from companies that want to conduct seismic surveys off the Eastern Seaboard, representing a first step towards opening U.S. waters for offshore drilling. While the oil and gas industry couldn’t be happier, environmental groups and communities along the Atlantic coast are alarmed over the economic and environmental impacts of seismic surveys and offshore drilling.
In announcing the decision, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said “seismic surveying helps a variety of federal and state partners better understand our nation’s offshore areas, including locating offshore hazards, siting of wind turbines, as well as offshore energy development. Allowing this scientific pursuit enables us to safely identify and evaluate resources that belong to the American people.”
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is currently reviewing applications from six companies seeking to conduct seismic surveys that had been denied permits by the previous administration. If approved, the companies could start conducting seismic surveys immediately.
Seismic surveys, largely used by the oil and gas industry to find fossil fuels beneath the ocean, involve blasting air from air guns aimed at the seabed. The resulting sound waves can travel thousands of miles across the ocean and can have some pretty nasty effects on marine life, like disrupting their hearing and causing them to act erratically. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, seismic studies have been shown to “dramatically depress catch rates of various commercial species (by 40 to 80%) over thousands of square kilometers…leading fishermen in some parts of the world to seek industry compensation for their losses.”
“Seismic blasting is the first step to opening the Atlantic to offshore drilling – a move which has been consistently and overwhelmingly rejected by business owners, more than 120 coastal communities, and elected officials on both sides of the aisle,” said SELC’s Senior Attorney, Sierra Weaver, in a press release. “These communities are not only concerned about drilling, but also about the harm to endangered whales, dolphins, and local fish stocks from seismic blasts.”
When Obama was considering opening up the Atlantic Seaboard to these types of surveys in 2016, scientists implored him to consider the “significant, long-lasting, and widespread impacts” that these surveys would have “on the region’s marine mammal and fish populations.” Obama also faced strong criticism from cities and towns along the seaboard that opposed seismic testing because of the negative impacts that the testing and future offshore drilling operations could have on their communities. In an abrupt about-face, instead of opening the area for surveys, Obama placed a permanent ban on offshore drilling for large areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic coastline. The protections were passed in direct opposition to then President-elect Trump.
But during his campaign, Trump pledged that within his 100 days in office, he would “lift the restrictions on the production of $50 trillion dollars’ worth of job-producing American energy reserves, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal.” And since becoming President, Trump has lived down to his word. The announcement to consider issuing seismic survey permits comes just weeks after Trump signed an executive order aiming at expanding offshore drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.
While actually drilling in these sections of ocean is still a long way off, the announcement and the executive order set up the framework for Trump to propose a five-year plan for the Department of the Interior that would include offshore drilling. “I am going to lift the restrictions on American energy, and allow this wealth to pour into our communities,” Trump said after signing the executive order.
For oil and gas companies, Christmas has arrived in May; “NOIA applauds Interior’s decision to reverse the Obama administration’s premature blanket denial of…seismic survey permit applications,” wrote the National Ocean Industries Association. ”There has been no documented scientific evidence of noise from these surveys adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities.”
Not everyone in Washington is drinking Trump’s Kool-Aid. Last month, U.S. Reps. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) and Don Beyer (D-VA) introduced the Seismic Airgun Protection Act to protect marine life and coastal economies from seismic airgun blasting. “The seismic pulses from airgun blasts threaten the aquatic species many coastal communities depend on,” said Rep. Beyer announcing the legislation. “Marine life and ocean biodiversity are essential not only to coastal environments, but to local and regional tourism, recreation, and fishing industries.”
Beyer led a coalition of over 100 representatives in sending a letter to Zinke urging him to keep Atlantic and Pacific oceans off-limits to new oil and gas leases. The letter notes that offshore drilling can interfere with the East and West Cost tourism and fishing industries, which are responsible for supporting almost two million jobs and about $90 billion in revenue.
“The ecological damage and negative impact caused by seismic testing is clear, which is why there is near-unanimous opposition from local concerned residents, commercial and recreational fishermen, and environmentalists along the Jersey Shore,” Rep. LoBiondo said in an interview withThe Philadelphia Inquirer. “This bipartisan legislation reaffirms my strong opposition to seismic airgun testing.”
Environmental groups have also pledged to take legal action to try to prevent any rollback of protections for the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. “Trump’s shortsighted order reverses climate progress and imperils coastal communities, irreplaceable wildlife, and our shared future,” said Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice, in an interview withThe Guardian. “It is also against the law. We will go to court to enforce the law and ensure President Obama’s protections remain in place.”
Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Atlas Obscura, CityLab, Fusion/Project Earth, Grist, The Guardian, High Country News, HuffPost, Medium, Mother Jones, the National Observer, New Republic, Newsweek, Reveal, Slate, Undark, Wired.