By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and environmental groups intend to resist the recent announcement of plans to commence seismic blasting for offshore oil and gas drilling. But time may be running out to prevent it.
Seismic blasting uses underwater airguns to search for fossil fuels deep beneath the seafloor, a process that endangers marine mammals such as whales and dolphins.
On Nov. 30, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued what is known as incidental harassment authorizations (IHA) to five companies for conducting seismic testing in an area from Delaware to Florida, a region twice the size of California.
The companies are ION GeoVentures, based in Houston; Spectrum Geo Inc. of England; TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Company of Norway; WesternGeco of England; and CGG, based in Paris.
Whitehouse called their approval “a statement” and “just an idea” that could be stalled by Congress. But according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the five authorizations are under final review and seismic surveys could begin as early as January.
The IHA allows the the companies to perform deep-penetration seismic surveys that search thousands of meters below the seafloor for oil, natural gas, and minerals. The federal “incidental take authorization” provision allows the activity to kill, harass, hunt, or capture marine mammals. Harassment is defined as “any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild; or has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.”
The federal National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says the potential to displace or harm marine life is minimal because of brief and limited exposure to survey noise.
According to the environmental advocacy group Oceana, the surveys deliver seismic blasts every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day over days or even weeks. Survey boats use dozens of airguns simultaneously to produce a constant blast that can travel thousand of miles.
The impact on sea life is significant. Airgun blasts cause temporary and permanent hearing loss, abandonment of habitat, disruption of mating and feeding, beach strandings, and even death, according to Oceana. Airgun blasts also kill fish eggs and larvae.
“For whales and dolphins, which rely on their hearing to find food, communicate, and reproduce, being able to hear is a life or death matter,” according to Oceana.
According to a 2013 report, catch rates of Atlantic cod, haddock, rockfish, herring, sand eel, and blue whiting declined by 40 percent to 80 percent because of seismic testing.
Seismic airgun testing in the Atlantic Ocean could injure 138,000 whales, according to BOEM. The noise is particularly threatening to the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
BOEM offers a list of protective measures to reduce harm to sea life, such as halting airgun use when animals get too close to vessels.
When a similar proposal was advanced under President Obama, more than 90 percent of the coastal communities in the Mid- and South Atlantic passed resolutions opposing the practice. The dissent was known as the Resolution Revolution, organized by Oceana. Shortly before Turmp took office in 2017, the Obama administration denied the applications for seismic testing in the Mid and South Atlantic, citing impacts on marine life. President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reversed that decision in May 2017, with the America-First Offshore Energy Strategy.
In January, Zinke announced plans to open the entire East and West coasts to offshore fossil-fuel exploration, prompting broad public opposition and efforts by coastal governors to meet with Zinke to convince him to halt the initiative.
In February, Gov. Gina Raimondo and Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation held a press conference to announce their opposition to offshore drilling. Block Island, Charlestown, Jamestown, and Tiverton all passed resolutions opposing offshore drilling and seismic blasting.
During a 45-day comment period on the proposed seismic airgun testing, the National Marine Fisheries Service received 15 petitions with a total of 99,423 signatures. Only one petition, with 595 signatures, supported the seismic surveys. The 14 other petitions with nearly 99,000 signatures opposed seismic blasting, as well as oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.
After the recent news of forthcoming seismic testing, Whitehouse said South Atlantic Republicans “would do well to remember the job Oceana did with the Obama administration trying for offside drilling.”
Whitehouse intends to work with the Commerce Committee and Appropriations Committee “to align our folks” to halt the seismic surveys and offshore oil and gas extraction.
On Dec. 11, Whitehouse, Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-MA, and six other senators asked the Department of Commerce to rescind IHA’s and the Department of Interior to deny the seismic survey permits. In a letter, the senators cite environmental threats and economic harm to tourism and fishing. They also noted that the results of the surveys would be kept private by the survey companies and not available for government or public use.
BOEM, however, is already reviewing the survey applications and could approve them by January.
“If they try to move up to the Northeast, they’ll find that the opposition is bipartisan,“ Whitehouse said. “So, I think we have a real prospect of stopping it, but it’s hard to stop something that’s at this point is just an idea, a statement. Once it hits the administrative steps, we’ll figure out what the best way to counterattack is.”
The counterattack is also going through the courts, primarily in the South. On Dec. 11, Oceana and eight other environmental groups filed in U.S. District Court in South Carolina a lawsuit that claims that by issuing the IHA, the National Marine Fisheries Service ignored science and violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. The lawsuit wants the authorizations suspended until environmental assessments are performed.
If and when the seismic blasting get underway, Oceana will track the activity with a real-time map.