Seismic testing in the Atlantic back on the table

Date Published: 
July 14, 2017

The battle was won. For a few months, at least.

People up and down the Atlantic Coast had celebrated the federal government’s decisions to reject seismic testing and potential oil or gas drilling.

But President Donald Trump has reversed some of those decisions and instructed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to consider revising the schedule of proposed oil and gas lease sales, to include the Alaskan seas and Atlantic Ocean, which the Obama administration had specifically removed from consideration.

“We’ve fought this campaign before … but we’re at it again,” said Matt Heim of the Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT). “We’re going to need all of your voices and then some to win this campaign.”

Every five years, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) writes America’s management plan for the Outer Continental Shelf, about 50 miles from shore. The process itself takes several years.

More than 100 coastal towns, as well as economic, fisheries, tourism and military sectors, had fought to keep seismic testing and oil drilling out of the Atlantic out of concerns over its potential impact.

So in the spring of 2016, the Atlantic was removed from the 2017-2022 plan. In January, seismic surveys were denied in the Mid- and South Atlantic.

This April, however, an executive order revoked those permanent protections and instructed the BOEM to reconsider six geophysical and geological (G&G) permit applications for seismic surveys that had already been rejected.

On April 28, Trump issued Executive Order 13795, outlining an America First Offshore Energy Strategy: “It shall be the policy of the United States to encourage energy exploration and production, including on the Outer Continental Shelf, in order to maintain the Nation’s position as a global energy leader and foster energy security and resilience for the benefit of the American people, while ensuring that any such activity is safe and environmentally responsible.”

The public has until Aug. 17 to comment.

Stepping back up to fight the proposal are local and national groups including Oceana, ACT, Surfrider Foundation and the Marine Education, Research & Rehabilitation (MERR) Institute.

“There’s a lot of concern. Basically, we’re starting from square one on a lot of these things,” Heim said. “The only thing that’s really changed, though, is the president. None of the reasons that we voiced in our opposition have changed …why we are opposed to this in the first place.”

A potential oil spill is the first concern. If BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill had occurred in the Atlantic, it would stretch from Virginia to the Carolina border, seeping into inland bays and rivers.

Even the more common small spills could be a “big problem” for a tourism economy of Rehoboth Beach or Ocean City, Md., said Heim.

Moreover, the potential Atlantic oil and gas reserves aren’t believed to be as lucrative as those in the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, the seismic testing must be done to even determine the best places for drilling. Seismic airguns shoot intense blasts of compressed air — one of the loudest manmade sounds. During testing, the blasts constantly pierce the ocean floor and reflect back up to help ships create a map of likely oil reserves in the Atlantic.

But sea creatures depend on echolocation, and water is a superb conductor of sound. Animals including dolphins, whales and turtles risk extreme pain or disorientation. Some change their migratory paths to avoid the noise, which can have a broad, but unknown, impact on other species further up the food chain.

The marine fisheries and industry had opposed seismic testing, having seen mass kills in other parts of the world, believed to be caused by seismic noise.

“We’re talking about putting our entire East Coast at risk, putting our economy at risk, putting our fishing communities at risk, putting our ecosystems at risk, for an industry that’s only going to be here 20 years, and then what are we left with?” Heim argued.

Six companies had applied for seismic permits to study potential reserves. With that underwater data, BOEM would decide what locations to even allow lease sites in the Atlantic. Drilling companies would bid for the opportunity to lease a site. Only then would BOEM grant a corporation permission to drill, if it so chose.

The BOEM was instructed to create a National Outer Continental Shelf Oil & Gas Leasing Program for 2019-2024, which would replace November’s 2017-2022 Program.

The official Request for Information was published in the Federal Register on July 3. The 45-day comment period will end Thursday, Aug. 17.

The president also instructed that other rules be reviewed and, if necessary, revised or withdrawn. That includes a memorandum on the effects of human-made sounds on marine mammal hearing; expedited reviews of Incidental Harassment Authorizations, Incidental-Take and Seismic Survey permits; and more.

Also, before the U.S. creates or expands any National Marine Sanctuary, the Department of the Interior must study the potential for energy or mineral resources there — including oil, natural gas, wind or methane hydrates — and the impact a sanctuary would have on those cultivating energy there.

People can learn more at www.boem.gov/Leasing and www.boem.gov/Frequently-Asked-Questions-for-RFI-and-National-Program.

Comments may be submitted online or by mail. Details are online at www.boem.gov/National-OCS-Oil-and-Gas-Leasing-Program-for-2019-2024. Comments may mailed regarding “BOEM-2017-0050” to Ms. Kelly Hammerle, National Program Manager; BOEM; 45600 Woodland Rd.; Mailstop VAM-LD; Sterling, VA 20166.