Southern Groups Intervene to Defend Atlantic Coast from Seismic Blasting

Intervention Follows Overwhelming Opposition from Coastal Communities

Washington, D.C.—Conservation groups today moved to intervene in an industry challenge to the federal government’s denial of permits for seismic testing in the Atlantic.  The Southern Environmental Law Center filed today’s motion on behalf of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, One Hundred Miles, and Defenders of Wildlife.

“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 Catherine Wannamaker, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.  “The federal government recognized that it should not permit the unnecessary harm caused by seismic testing – to important commercial and recreational fisheries and the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale – in a place where drilling has never occurred.” 

The federal government denied the seismic permits following its removal of the Atlantic from the 2017-2022 offshore oil and gas leasing program.  Applicants for the denied permits challenged that decision in the Department of Interior Board of Land Appeals, an administrative body within the department.

“With a vibrant commercial fishery industry and the only known calving ground for endangered North Atlantic right whales just off our coast, Georgians oppose seismic testing for offshore oil exploration and the risks it poses to our state’s wildlife, wild places, and quality of life,” says Alice Keyes, vice president for coastal conservation at One Hundred Miles. “The decision to deny seismic permits was based on sound science, policy, and public input. One Hundred Miles represents thousands of coastal advocates who stand together to support that decision.”

Used to locate and quantify potential oil and gas deposits, seismic testing involves the 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 more than 130,000 marine mammals, including the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale, would be injured by seismic testing along the East Coast. 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.

“We oppose seismic surveys that are the first step towards drilling for oil and gas off the coast of North Carolina,” said Todd Miller, executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation.  “These surveys are too big a risk for whales, dolphin, and fish, and will interfere with commercial and recreational fishing activities for extended periods of time."

When the federal government 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.

"South Carolina’s coastal communities like Charleston and Beaufort have spoken out for years against seismic testing for oil and gas and drilling because they understand the overwhelming scientific evidence of the risks to marine mammals like the endangered North Atlantic right whale,” said Eddy Moore, energy and climate director at the Coastal Conservation League. "We have already heard from thousands of residents who are prepared to join us in opposing this latest threat to the east coast’s economic and natural well-being."

After considering impacts to fisheries, the military, local economies, and the environment, as well as the low price of oil, the federal government’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.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Center for Biological Diversity also moved to intervene in the industry challenge today.

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The Southern Environmental Law Center is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. With nine offices across the region (Charlottesville, VA; Chapel Hill, NC; Atlanta, GA; Charleston, SC; Washington, DC; Birmingham, AL; Nashville, TN; Asheville, NC; and Richmond, VA), SELC is widely recognized as the Southeast’s foremost environmental organization and regional leader. SELC works on a full range of environmental issues to protect the South’s natural resources and the health and well-being of all the people in our region. www.SouthernEnvironment.org

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