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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Despite court ban, Trump administration plans to allow off-shore blasting

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Seismic surveys involve powerful airguns blasting at 10-second intervals and measuring the echoes off the seafloor to help map offshore oil and natural-gas fields. (Center for Biological Diversity)
Seismic surveys involve powerful airguns blasting at 10-second intervals and measuring the echoes off the seafloor to help map offshore oil and natural-gas fields. (Center for Biological Diversity)

The Trump administration has temporally halted plans to open most of the nation’s coast, including the Atlantic continental shelf, to offshore drilling, but seismic airgun blasting may still happen.

According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), permitting for seismic surveys in the Atlantic Ocean continues to move forward.

Seismic surveys involve the use of undersea airguns to search for fossil-fuel deposits buried deep beneath the seafloor. 

The blasts can occur for days and weeks, using multiple cannons that can be heard for thousands of miles. The sound damages and disorients sea life such as whales, dolphins, and sea turtles and destroys food sources like fish eggs and larvae.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has issued incidental harassment authorizations (IHAs) to five companies, which allow them to harm sea life while conducting surveys between Delaware and Florida. The companies await final permits from BOEM.


According to a business group representing the five companies — ION GeoVentures, based in Houston; Spectrum Geo Inc. of England; TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Company of Norway; WesternGeco of England, a division of Schlumberger; and CGG, based in Paris — they all intend to continue seeking the permits.

According to Oceana, seismic airgun surveys in the Atlantic Ocean could injure 138,000 whales, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The recent admission by the Trump administration wasn’t an official statement, but remarks by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in an April 25 Wall Street Journal interview indicated that the White House’s offshore drilling plan was on hold pending a court appeal.

On Jan. 6, 2017, near the end of his second term in office, President Obama imposed bans on seismic surveys off the mid- and south Atlantic. Trump overturned the bans in April 2017, adding the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts, or about 90 percent of the U.S. shoreline, to his five-year offshore drilling plan.

A court ruling in March stated that Trump exceeded his authority by signing the executive order. The U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska said presidents can only impose drilling bans, while Congress has the authority to overturn such bans.

An appeal may take years and could reach the Supreme Court, prompting the Department of Interior (DOI) to posture that it is pausing the initiative.

Several East Coast states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut but not Rhode Island, have joined a lawsuit suing the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for not protecting marine natural resources.

Dozens of municipalities, business organizations, and environmental groups such as the Southern Environmental Law Center have filed lawsuits, claiming that offshore fossil-fuel extraction would harm the ecosystem and tourism.

The latest legal action takes place as the DOI’s Office of Inspector General conducts investigations into potential ethics violations by six senior officials at DOI, including Bernhardt.

“This certainly isn’t over. I won’t stop fighting the Trump administration’s offshore drilling proposal until every part of it — including seismic testing — is fully abandoned,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said.