Beaufort County residents probably won’t see or hear any effects of seismic testing in the Atlantic at first, but if the fish start to go missing, they might notice. And at that point, it could be too late, according to environmental groups.
Following up on an executive order made by President Donald Trump in April, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Monday that it is seeking public comments on a draft permit that would allow companies conducting seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean to “incidentally, but not intentionally, harass marine mammals.”
“You sometimes get the argument back that this isn’t going to harm the animals, but the permit (the companies) are seeking is literally the ability to harm these animals,” said Eddy Moore, Coastal Conservation League’s energy and climate program director.
“Using a law that’s supposed to protect endangered species to instead blast sound every 10 seconds over habitats thousands of miles long — that’s not protecting those species, it’s a wide open door to hurt them,” he said.
This is the first permit companies must acquire before obtaining permission from the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to begin testing. NOAA is considering permit requests from five seismic-exploration companies, which all plan to explore at least some part of the waters off South Carolina.
Seismic-exploration companies detonate sound blasts from airguns off of ships to search for oil under the ocean floor. The ships that send off the blasts are bigger than a yacht but smaller than a cargo ship, Moore said.
The airguns can spread over thousands of square miles of ocean and are fired underwater up to every 10 seconds for weeks at a time in order to read “echos” from the bottom geology. The blasts can deafen, injure and scatter marine animals, according to studies by the federal government and other researchers.
A study published in the scientific journal Marine Policy found that during a 2014 National Science Foundation seismic mapping effort in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina, 78 percent of the fish on a nearby reef “went missing” after the seismic survey.
Similarly, an environmental impact statement released in 2014 by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management concluded that seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean could injure about 138,000 marine animals, and disrupt the migration, feeding and other behavioral patterns of 13.6 million more animals.
Opposition to Atlantic offshore drilling and seismic airgun blasting has grown to millions of East Coast residents, more than 125 municipalities, 41,000 businesses and half a million fishing families, according to OCEANA’s website.
The debate over offshore drilling for many coastal community members is one that touches both environmental and economic concerns. While some support the potential for economic growth through fossil fuel exploration, others warn of potential damage to both marine life and a billion-dollar tourism economy.
“The process isn’t safe for marine life nor local economies dependent on a healthy ocean,” Frank Knapp Jr., president and CEO of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, said in a news release. “ ...(President Trump) should put America’s Atlantic Coast first and not the profits of foreign seismic companies and their multi-national big oil clients.”
According to federal rules, testing could occur in all federal waters, between 3 and 350 miles offshore.
“It’s not just going to affect the tourism and those coming to the coast, but (the) seafood industry as well,” Moore said. “We’re talking about blasts that will damage the eardrums of anything nearby, causing schools of fish and marine animals to flee somewhere else to get away from the noise.”
Industry advocates, on the other hand, argue that seeking data is the most responsible first step to drilling.
“As this administration has recognized, new data acquisition in the Atlantic is imperative to comprehensive and long-term energy planning,” Nikki Martin, president of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, said in a news release.
“Contrary to misinformation, seismic and other geophysical surveys have been successfully conducted in the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf and around the world for over 50 years without significant impact to marine mammal populations or coastal ecosystems,” she said.
Giving it a second go
In January, after nearly two years of debate and consideration, the Obama administration shut the door on drilling in the Atlantic Ocean and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management denied six permits to companies seeking to use seismic testing.
At the time, the bureau said the decision was based on several factors, including an earlier moratorium that closed the Atlantic to oil exploration and drilling until 2022 and concerns that seismic testing could harm marine animals, according to the agency.
But under the direction of the Trump administration, the bureau reopened permit considerations for five of those companies.
“Because there have been no changes on any of the reasons (the bureau) gave when the seismic permits were denied, continuing to process the permits now is a political decision in contradiction to the fact-based, scientific decision (the bureau) reached in January,” Knapp said in a press release. “(The Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast) also believes that it stands in violation of legal administrative procedures.”
NOAA is accepting public comments for 30 days on the proposed permits until July 7.
According to Moore, it is possible a person or group will appeal the decision if those companies are granted permits. In that case, the public comments will be essential, because the argument that it’s illegal must be formed based on the comments.
“It’s a real opportunity for citizens to voice their opinions and articulate why it’s a bad idea,” he said. “ ... Because if they do begin testing, the whole point is to lead to oil drilling.”
To offer your support or opposition
Comments should be addressed to Jolie Harrison, Chief Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service. They can by sent by mail to 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910 or electronically to ITP.Laws@noaa.gov. The deadline is July 7.