US approves oil, gas seismic testing in Atlantic Ocean
After months of delays, the Trump administration announced Friday that it had approved seismic testing for oil and natural gas reserves along the US East Coast, a necessary step in opening US Atlantic waters to drilling.
The Trump administration tentatively plans to hold two Atlantic lease sales, one for drilling rights in the South Atlantic and one for rights in the Mid-Atlantic, in 2020. They would be the first of nine Atlantic sales the administration has included in its draft proposed leasing plan for 2019 through 2024.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries on Friday issued final authorizations for five companies to conduct geophysical surveys using airgun arrays in the Atlantic Ocean. The authorizations, made under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, will allow these companies to “incidentally, but not intentionally, harass marine mammals to … conduct geophysical surveys in support of hydrocarbon exploration in the Atlantic Ocean,” the agency said.
The seismic testing, which is expected to take place in Atlantic waters from Delaware to northern Florida, is expected to begin within a year. The authorizations lapse after one year, NOAA officials said.
The next step is for Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to complete an environmental review and determine whether to approve permits.
“This will occur in the near future,” Tracey Moriarty, a BOEM spokeswoman, said Friday.
NOAA began the approval process for these authorizations in June 2017, but final approvals had been delayed without explanation.
The Atlantic has not been surveyed in over three decades, when estimates found there is a mean of 4.72 billion barrels of undiscovered technically recoverable oil and 37.51 Tcf of undiscovered technically recoverable natural gas, according to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
But about 80% of the Mid- and South Atlantic areas have never been evaluated with seismic surveys, according to the International Association of Geophysical Contractors.
The authorizations granted Friday require companies to make several monitoring, reporting and mitigation measures, including required shutdowns of operations when sensitive species are observed and vessel strike avoidance procedures, the agency said.
The authorizations were immediately criticized by environmental groups and some Democrats.
“We’re going to fight this,” said Diane Hoskins, a campaign director with Oceana, indicating that a lawsuit challenging the authorizations was likely.
“There is nothing this administration won’t do for the fossil fuel industry, including destroying local economies and ruining endangered species habitats,” Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement.
“Seismic surveys not only pave the way for offshore drilling that no one wants here, but they also endanger whales, dolphins, and fisheries, and threaten coastal economies,” Catherine Wannamaker, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement. “Communities up and down the coast have made clear they do not support seismic blasting in the Atlantic, and they will continue to fight the Trump administration turning its back on them.”
In April 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at including additional sales in the western Gulf of Mexico, Chukchi and Beaufort seas, Cook Inlet, and the Mid- and South Atlantic. Under the order, the Interior Department was to authorize seismic testing in the Atlantic, reversing a previous rejection of such testing by the Obama administration.
In January, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke unveiled a draft proposed offshore leasing plan for 2019 through 2024 that included 47 potential lease sales in federal waters, including nine lease sales in the Atlantic. He later said he planned to exclude waters offshore the coast of Florida from future lease sales, but has yet to specify which sales will be eliminated. Nearly every East Coast governor is opposed to Atlantic drilling.
Interior is expected to unveil a proposed offshore leasing plan in January and finalize it sometime in 2019.