WASHINGTON – The Trump administration took an important step toward future oil and natural gas drilling off the Atlantic shore, approving five requests allowing companies to conduct deafening seismic surveys that could harm tens of thousands of dolphins, whales and other marine animals, according to studies.
In an announcement Friday, the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, declared that it issued final “incidental take” authorizations permitting companies conducting the surveys to harm wildlife if its unintentional.
“NOAA Fisheries is clear in the documentation related to incidental take authorizations that we do not expect mortality to occur as a result of these surveys,” said spokeswoman Katherine Brogan. But numerous scientific studies show acoustic sound can harm or potentially kill animals.
The decision is likely to further antagonize governors in states along the Eastern Seaboard who strongly oppose the administration’s proposal to expand federal oil and gas leases to the Atlantic. The authorizations clear the way for surveys across a stretch of ocean between Delaware and Florida.
Every state executive on the coast below Maine opposes the plan. Federal leases could lead to exploratory drilling for the first time in more than a half-century. Several Democrats representing those states in the House and Senate decried the authorizations.
In addition to harming sea life, acoustic tests — in which acoustic waves are sent through water 10 to 12 seconds apart to image the sea floor — can disrupt thriving commercial fisheries. Governors, state lawmakers and attorneys general along the Atlantic coast say drilling threatens beach tourism that has flourished on the coast in the absence of oil production.
Seismic testing maps the ocean floor and estimates the whereabouts of oil and gas, but only exploratory drilling can confirm their presence. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that soiled the Gulf of Mexico resulted from an exploratory drill. Another Gulf disaster that looms almost as large has spewed oil for more than 14 years. The Taylor Energy spill of up to an estimated 700 barrels a day started when a hurricane ripped up production wells and could continue for the rest of the century, according to the Interior Department.
The fisheries service announcement comes just a week after the Trump administration released a new report by the U.S. Geological Survey showing that excavating and burning fossil fuels from federal land made up nearly a fourth of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions over a decade ending in 2014.
A week ago, the administration published a much larger report by 13 federal agencies projecting the severe economic costs of climate change as coastal flooding and wildfires worsen, and hurricanes are becoming more severe. After the administration’s critics accused it of trying to bury the report with a release on Black Friday, President Donald Trump dismissed it out of hand.
“One of the problems that a lot of people like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence but we’re not necessarily such believers,” Trump said during an interview with the Washington Post.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., the senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, blasted the administration’s decision to permit acoustic testing as “an alarming sign of its indifference to the fate of coastal communities and marine life, including the endangered north Atlantic right whale.”
He bemoaned the timing of the announcement shortly after the climate report’s release, saying, “There is nothing this administration won’t do for the fossil fuel industry, including destroying local economies and ruining endangered species habitats.”
In a tweet Friday, Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., called for congressional action to regulate seismic testing. “Since Donald Trump has decided to ignore the concerns of residents and stakeholders directly impacted by seismic blasting and offshore drilling,” he said, “it is time for Congress to step in and put a stop to this by passing my bill, the Atlantic Seismic Airgun Protection Act.”
Numerous other Democrats criticized the administration’s decision.
According to one model prediction used in a 2014 study by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), nearly 2.5 million dolphins would be harassed or possibly killed by acoustic sound blasts each year in the middle and southern Atlantic, and nearly a half-million pilot whales would be affected.
Six of the affected mammals in the study area are endangered species, the report said, including four types of whales. The species most affected would be humpback whales, 12 of which could be killed each year it said. However, BOEM has asserted that there is no confirmed evidence that animals are actually harmed by seismic mapping and considers the threat “negligible.”
The Obama administration denied six permits for seismic testing weeks before Trump took office in 2017 out of concern for wildlife and fisheries.