By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
Despite the government shutdown, federal agencies are moving forward with permitting for seismic airgun surveying and the offshore drilling for natural gas and oil that may follow.
Press liaisons are furloughed, so it’s difficult to know the status of pending permits before the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Department of Interior.
Nevertheless, the five exploration companies approved for sonic airgun blasting are still expected to hear from the Department of Interior this month, after which they can immediately begin surveying.
The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) is processing paperwork, as more than half of the agency’s 803 employees remain on the job, paid by “non-lapsing funds,” according to BSEE.
“During the shut-down BSEE will continue critical permitting and oversight activities associated with energy development on the Outer Continental Shelf, so as to allow the bureau to continue to support the sustained exploration and development of the Outer Continental Shelf during the shut-down,” according to a Dec. 17, 2018 BSEE statement.
Blasts from seismic airguns disrupt many aquatic ecosystems and harm sea mammals such as North Atlantic right whales, dolphins, and sea turtles, according to research. During surveys, ships fire underwater sonic blasts for hours and even days, sending sonic booms with 100,000 times the intensity of a jet engine thousands of miles through the ocean. The noise disrupts feeding, mating, and echolocation used by marine mammals. A 2017 study found that the sonic booms decimate vital sea life such as zooplankton.
Shortly before President Trump took office in January 2017, BOEM denied the same airgun activity because of potential harm to marine life. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reversed the decisions months later, saying that sea animals can recover from any harm.
Several environmental groups are suing NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service for allowing fossil-fuel exploration companies to conduct the seismic airgun activities and thereby violate protections like the Endangered Species Act.
In Rhode Island, members of the General Assembly joined elected officials from seven other states by sponsoring legislation that bans offshore drilling. Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport, and Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, are expected to introduce matching bills in the Senate and House.
“The state and our institutions have invested incredible resources on forward-thinking coastal policy initiatives. Opening up coastal waters to offshore drilling is short-sighted and puts our economy at great risk,” Euer wrote in a press statement.
The legislation would prohibit oil drilling within state waters, which extends 3 nautical miles offshore. The bill would also ban the construction of oil platforms and port terminals and the installation of any equipment related to oil production within the state. In 2018, the same bill died in committee in both the House and Senate.
Similar legislation is being filed in Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Oregon.
Massachusetts Rep. Dylan Fernandez, D-Woods Hole, filed a bill that bans oil and gas drilling off the coast of the Bay State.
In Washington, D.C., bipartisan steps were recently taken to stymie Trump’s plans for offshore exploration and drilling. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., introduced a bill that prohibits the Department of the Interior from issuing leases for the exploration, development, or production of oil or natural gas off the New England coast. Other representatives introduced bills protecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the eastern Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, and the Arctic.
“We’re not going to sit by and watch as President Trump plunders our oceans for his friends in the big oil companies,” Cicilline said.