Bipartisan pressure builds to protect the Atlantic from seismic blasting

The gray blocks show where seismic testing for oil and gas deposits has been proposed, and the red area is critical habitat for the North Atlantic right whale, an endangered species. (Map by Oceana.)

While the Obama administration earlier this year took the Atlantic Ocean off the list of places where it will allow offshore drilling, it's still considering allowing seismic testing for oil and gas deposits in an area that stretches from Delaware to Florida.

But a growing number of elected officials, both Democrats and Republicans, are asking it to take those plans off the table, citing concerns about impacts on the environment and economy. Seismic surveys use intense sound blasts to map undersea oil and gas and can disturb, injure and even kill ocean wildlife. The federal government has estimated that as many as 138,500 whales and dolphins alone could be injured and possibly killed if testing goes ahead in the Atlantic.

This week, a bipartisan group of 69 state legislators from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia sent a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell citing the multiple threats seismic testing presents and asking the administration to block all requested permits.

"Allowing G&G [geological and geophysical] exploration, including seismic airgun surveys, to move forward in the Atlantic Ocean would be unnecessarily risky to our state's economies and marine resources," they wrote, adding:

Peer-reviewed studies have concluded that seismic airgun blasting results in displacement of fish, reduced catch rates of some commercial fish species, and disrupts vital feeding and breeding behaviors in marine mammals. Many of these scientists have urged the administration to reject the Department of the Interior's decision to move forward with G&G permitting in the Atlantic, including scientists from the esteemed Duke Nicholas School of the Environment and the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.  

The letter also raised concerns about transparency, pointing out that the data gathered by geophysical testing companies is proprietary and not available to the public. "Our constituents would not be able to make a cost-benefit analysis as to whether the risks posed by offshore oil and gas exploration would outweigh any potential benefits derived from offshore drilling," it stated.

The letter's signatories include 51 lawmakers from North Carolina, 12 from South Carolina and six from Georgia. Fifty-three are Democrats, and six are Republicans. A number represent coastal districts, including North Carolina state Rep. Susi Hamilton, a Democrat from Wilmington; South Carolina state Rep. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican; and Georgia state Rep. Jeff Jones, a Republican from Brunswick.

The letter is part of a groundswell of popular opposition in Atlantic coastal communities to both offshore drilling and seismic testing. To date, 113 East Coast municipalities have passed resolutions against drilling and/or exploration, as have more than 1,000 elected officials and some 1,100 business interests including local chambers of commerce, tourism boards and restaurant associations.

Numerous fishing industry groups have also expressed concern, as have scientists. Last year, for example, 75 leading marine scientists wrote to President Obama stating that seismic testing in the region "represents a significant threat to marine life." And earlier this year, 28 marine biologists wrote to the president about seismic testing's potentially devastating impact on Northern Atlantic right whales, already one of the most endangered whales on the planet with only about 500 individuals left:

The right whale's declining population growth rate is thought to be directly linked to the disproportionately high level of human activity occurring along its east coast range, resulting in entanglements in fishing gear, underwater noise impacts, and exposures to other chronic stressors. Adding another major stressor to their environment in the form of seismic surveys would, we believe, substantially increase the risk that the population will slip into further decline and would jeopardize its survival.

Earlier this month. U.S. Reps. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat, and Frank LoBiondo, a New Jersey Republican, introduced a bill to block seismic testing in the Atlantic. Similar legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate in April by Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat. And last year, U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican, joined with his colleague Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, to pen a letter signed by 31 other House members urging the Obama administration to cancel seismic testing in the region.

Meanwhile, environmental advocates buoyed by their victory in the fight against Atlantic drilling continue to organize opposition to seismic blasting. Earlier this summer, for example, several environmental groups took part in a three-day tour of North Carolina coastal communities to educate beachgoers about the hazards of seismic testing and to ask them to sign a petition urging the Obama administration to halt the surveys.