NC, VA governors press feds to move on Atlantic oil and gas exploration permits

Gov. Pat McCrory (R) of North Carolina and Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) of Virginia are urging federal regulators to move quickly on permits for seismic testing for Atlantic oil and gas reserves from Delaware to Florida despite new evidence that it carries greater risks for marine mammals than previously thought.

The governors of North Carolina and Virginia want federal regulators to hurry up and approve seismic testing for oil and gas reserves along the Atlantic Coast — even though recent scientific findings have raised new concerns about increased risks to whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Last week Gov. Pat McCrory (R) of North Carolina and Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) of Virginia wrote a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker asking her to investigate why it's taking so long for her agency's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to process applications to conduct seismic tests for offshore oil and gas deposits.

McCrory chairs and McAuliffe is a member of the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, a group of pro-drilling governors that's run by oil and gas industry lobbyists. The Governors Coalition has been pressuring the Obama administration to open the area off the coast of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia to oil and gas exploration and drilling.

The governors note that several seismic testing companies filed applications last year with NMFS to obtain what are known as Incidental Harassment Authorizations or IHAs, which allow the "pursuit, torment, or annoyance" of marine mammals with the potential to injure them or disturb migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding or sheltering.

"Two IHA requests for seismic acquisition in waters off Alaska have been processed since that time, yet the NMFS has been slow in processing IHA applications for the Mid- and South Atlantic [Outer Continental Shelf]," McCrory and McAuliffe wrote. "Additional delays were created when a 30 day comment period was added to the application review process."

The governors ask Pritzker to look into the processing of the applications "to determine the cause of any delays and ensure that IHA issuance is completed in a timely manner."

Four companies have submitted applications to NMFS for IHAs related to Atlantic seismic testing: Spectrum Geo and ION GeoVentures, both of Houston; TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Co., a Norwegian firm with U.S. operations based in Houston; and TDI-Brooks International of College Station, Texas.

Seismic testing involves blasting loud airguns every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for days or weeks at a time — intense noise that can injure or even kill marine mammals and other ocean life. The federal government's own estimates are that as many as 138,000 marine animals could be injured and another 13.5 million could have their behavior patterns disrupted by seismic testing, which has been proposed from Delaware to Central Florida, an area larger than that being considered for drilling.

Last month, an alliance of environmental groups sent a letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the Department of Interior agency that regulates offshore drilling, alerting it to new data that calls into question its 2014 analysis that concluded seismic testing would have a negligible impact on Atlantic marine life. The environmental advocates pointed to new federal density models for whales, dolphins and porpoises that show the animals are present within the offshore exploration area in far greater concentrations than BOEM had anticipated.

Environmental advocates have also raised concerns that the NMFS is considering the four seismic testing permit applications it's received without taking into account the additional four applications the BOEM is considering. Comments submitted to NMFS by the N.C. Coastal Federation point out that three of the four IHA permit applications propose seismic surveys in overlying areas and times and urge the agency to weigh cumulative impacts.

"The combined effect of several surveys occurring during the same time period, in the same general areas in the Atlantic, is an unknown variable that has not been adequately assessed," the group wrote.

McCrory's and McAuliffe's letter does not mention any effects seismic testing might have on ocean life; its stated concern is that "the delays in the IHA process could jeopardize the timely acquisition of seismic data that will support informed decision-making by Mid-Atlantic states."

The environmental advocacy group Oceana has launched an online petition criticizing McCrory for the letter. It accuses him of "racing our state and coastal communities toward disaster" and calls on him to "reverse course."