Move to Open US Atlantic Coast to Oil Drilling Meets Increased Opposition

A rare and endangered blue whale, one of at least four feeding 11 miles off Long Beach Harbor in the Catalina Channel, spouts near offshore oil rigs after a long dive July 16, 2008 near Long Beach, California. (Photo: David McNew / Getty Images News)A rare and endangered blue whale spouts near offshore oil rigs after a long dive near Long Beach, California. Now that the Trump administration is opening up Atlantic waters to the industry, the endangered North Atlantic right whale may soon be swimming next to oil rigs as well. (Photo: David McNew / Getty Images News)

The Trump Administration has taken steps to open up the United States’ Atlantic waters to offshore oil exploration and drilling, sparking fierce resistance up and down the coast.

For instance, Timothy O’Brien, a self-described “angler and sportsman” who is president of Tycoon Tackle, Inc. and serves on the Ecosystem and Ocean Planning Advisory Panel of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, wrote in an op-ed in June that “My business and my customers’ businesses will be hit hard if the exploration and drilling for oil off the Atlantic Coast goes forward. But it is not just angling that is at risk, the entire coastal economy and way of life is under threat.”

O’Brien’s most immediate concern is that, before any drilling can begin, surveys of the Atlantic coastal region would first be performed by seismic airgun blasting. Continually blasting intense bursts of noise into the water every 10 to 12 seconds in order to determine what resources might lie beneath the ocean floor, seismic airguns are so loud they can be heard underwater as far as 2,500 miles away — and the blasting can go on for weeks or even months straight.

“Studies have shown that this type of disturbance can decrease catch rates of commercial fish species by an average of 50 percent over thousands of square miles,” O’Brien notes. “Further, these blasts are known to harm marine mammals and other species that are vital to a healthy ecosystem.”

O’Brien is far from alone in his opposition to the Trump Administration’s plans to open the Atlantic coast to exploitation by oil and gas companies. According to the NGO Oceana, “an alliance representing over 41,000 businesses and 500,000 fishing families from Florida to Maine, also oppose oil exploration and/or development in the Atlantic,” while the fishery management councils for the Mid-Atlantic, New England, and the South Atlantic regions have all expressed concerns about the risks posed by seismic airgun blasting.

Joining them are 131 East Coast municipalities and well over 1,000 elected officials at the federal, local, and state levels, including over 100 members of the US Congress and the governors of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.

This is a fight that began long before Trump took office. The Atlantic coast has been off-limits to drilling for the past three decades, but Trump is not the first president whose administration considered opening the United States’ Atlantic waters up to oil and gas development.

In the early 1980s, the US Congress enacted a prohibition on offshore drilling that effectively banned the practice in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and off the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. A presidential moratorium was later put in place by George H.W. Bush in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill. His son, George W. Bush, reversed the presidential ban on offshore drilling in 2008, however, at a time when “Drill, Baby, Drill” had become a popular presidential campaign slogan amongst Republicans. Congress would eventually follow Bush’s lead and allow its ban to expire, as well.

The presidential moratorium was not reinstated under the Obama Administration, which appeared to be generally supportive of Atlantic oil exploration, even going so far as to propose opening portions of the Atlantic coast to offshore drilling in 2014, including the coasts of North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia. That proposal was eventually shelved, however, and the Atlantic removed from consideration for offshore drilling following opposition from local communities and elected officials.

Permits for seismic surveys were considered by the Obama Administration, but in January 2017, before the Trump Administration came to power, all pending permits were rejected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). But then, in April, Trump issued an executive order aimed at implementing his so-called “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy,” which called for a review of the 2017-2022 Five Year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program finalized under the Obama Administration and proposed that all U.S. waters be considered for offshore drilling.

The executive order also instructed federal agencies to “streamline” the permitting process for “seismic research and data collection” and “expedite all stages of consideration of Incidental Take Authorization requests, including Incidental Harassment Authorizations and Letters of Authorization, and Seismic Survey permit applications” required under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The executive order prompted Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to issue a secretarial order that instructed BOEM to reverse its previous decision to deny permits for seismic surveying activities off the East Coast.

Before those permits can be officially released, however, companies that hope to put ships in the water towing the seismic airgun arrays used for surveying what’s beneath the ocean floor must secure an Incidental Harassment Authorization, or IHA, from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), as any party that wants to do something that could potentially harm or injure marine mammals is required to do under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Oceana was one of several groups that submitted comments to NMFS in opposition to the five IHAs that have been granted to companies seeking to do seismic surveys off the Atlantic coastline. “As soon as NMFS is done reviewing those comments, they can release those IHAs,” Ingrid Biedron, a marine scientist and campaign manager with Oceana, told Mongabay. As for how long the review process could take, and hence how soon companies could conceivably begin seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic, Biedron said: “It could be tomorrow, it could be this fall, we really don’t know how long it’s going to take them and how much care they’re going to put into reviewing those comments. We hope they put a lot of attention into them and take our suggestions into account. But we don’t know.”

Mongabay’s requests for comment were not returned by BOEM or Secretary Zinke’s office.

Seismic Surveys Could Threaten Critically Endangered Marine Mammal

Seismic airgun surveys are the first step toward offshore drilling, of course, but under the current five-year Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) oil and gas leasing program adopted by the Obama Administration, the Atlantic can not be considered for drilling. That’s why the Trump Administration wants to rewrite the five-year plan: to open not just the Atlantic but also the entire Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific, and the Arctic Ocean for drilling.

“That’s a longer-term process,” Biedron noted. “We still care about it and want to pay attention, but that’s a much longer timeline, on the order of probably a couple years.”

Whether or not oil wells are ever drilled off the Atlantic coast, Biedron says that the seismic airgun surveying process that would be used to determine where best to locate any potential wells would have severe consequences. “The problem with seismic airgun surveys being proposed in the Atlantic are that peer-reviewed, published science shows that they can negatively impact marine life, including endangered whales and sea turtles, as well as commercially important fish, shellfish, even zooplankton,” she said. “Research shows that the feeding activities, mating, navigational activities can all be impacted by seismic airgun noise.”

BOEM itself has estimated that as many as 138,000 marine mammals could be injured by seismic airgun blasting off the Atlantic coast, while millions more animals’ lives would be disrupted.

A species of particular concern is the North Atlantic right whale, which is listed as critically endangered under the US Endangered Species Act. There are only about 500 of the whales left, and their only known calving ground is off the coast of the southeast US, including the area where seismic surveying has been proposed. Conservationists worry that the impacts of seismic airgun blasting could be the final nail in the North Atlantic right whale’s coffin.

That is not a risk conservationists see as worth taking, especially given how little oil and gas is actually at stake. A 2011 assessment by BOEM of the undiscovered oil and gas resources in the US Outer Continental Shelf found that the Atlantic contains less than four percent of the nation’s total oil reserves and less than three percent of its gas reserves.

But it’s the wellbeing and livelihoods of their constituents that appears to have led Reps. John Rutherford (R-FL) and Don Beyer (D-VA) to send a bipartisan letter co-signed by more than 100 of their fellow members of Congress to Secretary Zinke stating their opposition to the Trump Administration’s moves toward opening up the Atlantic for oil and gas exploration.

“This decision to move forward with permits for seismic airgun surveys for subsea oil and gas deposits puts at risk the vibrant Atlantic Coast economies dependent on healthy ocean ecosystems, which generate $95 billion in gross domestic product and support nearly 1.4 million jobs each year,” the members of Congress wrote. “Opening the Atlantic to seismic testing and drilling jeopardizes our coastal businesses, fishing communities, tourism, and our national security. It harms our coastal economies in the near term and opens the door to even greater risks from offshore oil and gas production down the road.”