SELC, partners intervene to defend Atlantic coast from seismic blasting

Locals gathered Friday in Virginia Beach to restate their position that offshore drilling, and the seismic exploration that accompanies it, are not welcome on the Atlantic coast. (© Mike Mather/SELC)

Update (5/12/17): President Trump filed his America First Offshore Energy Policy, initiating federal consideration of shelved permit applications for seismic testing in the Atlantic, the first step toward drilling. SELC awaits the board's response to our intervention in the case, challenging the justifications for this unneeded and unwanted undertaking.

Conservation groups today moved to intervene in an industry challenge to the Obama administration’s denial of permits for seismic testing in the Atlantic.

“The only reason to pursue seismic is to drill, and communities all along the Atlantic coast have made clear they don’t want this risky activity off their shores,” said Senior Attorney Catherine Wannamaker. “The Obama administration recognized that it should not permit the unnecessary harm caused by seismic testing – to important commercial and recreational fisheries, and to the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale – in a place where drilling has never occurred.”

The Obama administration denied the seismic permit applications following the removal of the Atlantic from the 2017-2022 offshore oil and gas leasing program. Recently, applicants for the denied seismic permits challenged that decision in the Department of Interior Board of Land Appeals, an administrative body within the department.

Used to locate and quantify potential oil and gas deposits, seismic testing involves firing blasts of air from large air guns toward the ocean floor for days or weeks at a time. Seismic blasts have been known to travel more than a thousand miles through the ocean, disorienting, hurting, deafening, or even killing nearby marine life. The Department of the Interior estimates that seismic testing along the East Coast would injure more than 130,000 marine mammals, including the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale. Seismic blasts also drive away fish, drastically cutting commercial fishing production. Studies have shown that seismic testing could potentially harm commercial and recreational fishing—central to coastal economies—by decreasing catch rates by as much as 80 percent.

When the Obama administration included the Southeast Atlantic coast in its initial proposed five-year oil and gas drilling plan, it met widespread and intense opposition by coastal communities and business and political leaders. More than 120 cities and towns along the Eastern seaboard expressed their opposition, including 100 percent of communities along South Carolina’s coast. These communities know that the only way to truly identify oil and gas deposits is to drill exploratory wells—exactly the type of activity caused the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010—and that the only reason to test for the presence of oil and gas is ultimately to drill for oil and gas production.

After considering impacts to fisheries, the military, local economies, and the environment, as well as the low price of oil, the Obama administration’s final five-year drilling plan for 2017–2022 excluded the Southeast Atlantic. The administration found that, with offshore leasing off the table in the Atlantic for the foreseeable future, seismic testing would cause undue harm, and waiting to allow seismic testing until drilling was imminent would allow technology to advance in ways likely to cause less damage to the marine environment.

SELC filed today’s brief on behalf of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, One Hundred Miles, and Defenders of Wildlife. The Natural Resources Defense Council and Center for Biological Diversity also moved to intervene in the industry challenge today.

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