Atlantic seismic testing permits granted amid surge in industry lobbying

This Bureau of Ocean Energy Management map shows the area of the Atlantic where the Trump administration wants to allow seismic surveys for oil and gas reserves.

Though communities along the Atlantic Coast have expressed overwhelming opposition to seismic testing for offshore oil and gas reserves, and scientists have warned that the deafeningly loud technology threatens the critically endangered right whale, the Trump administration last week issued a notice that it would allow five companies to conduct seismic surveys in an area stretching from New Jersey to Florida.

The companies granted authorization to conduct what are known as "deep penetration seismic surveys" — the first step toward offshore drilling — are:

  • the U.S. division of CGG, a French company;
  • ION Geophysical of Houston;
  • Spectrum Geo, a Norwegian company with offices in Houston;
  • TGS-NOPEC Geophysical, which is headquartered in Norway; and
  • Schlumberger subsidiary Western Geco, based near London.

That the companies got these permits despite the widespread opposition of affected communities is no accident: Their lobbying through trade associations on matters including seismic testing in the Atlantic has surged in recent years.

There are two trade associations representing seismic testing firms: the Houston-based International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC), which represents the geophysical and exploration industry specifically, and the National Ocean Industries Association, a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents all aspects of the offshore energy industry, including seismic testing firms.

All of the companies granted Atlantic seismic testing permits are members of the IAGC, whose board of directors is chaired by a Western Geco representative and which includes representatives of CGG, ION, and TGS. Though NOIA does not make its member list public, its own documents available online show that Spectrum Geo is a member, while TGS is represented on the group's technology policy committee, as is Western Geco parent company Schlumberger.

An examination of records at the Center for Responsive Politics' database show show that the associations' lobbying expenditures have doubled in recent years, and that the issues they've lobbied on include Atlantic seismic testing (see here and here).

In 2016, IAGC and NOIA together spent $90,000 on lobbying at the federal level. In 2017, that figure jumped a whopping 89 percent to $170,000, and it climbed again in 2018 to $180,000.

As part of the effort to promote Atlantic testing, the trade associations have downplayed the potential risk the practice, which involves constant and dangerously loud blasting, presents to marine life. For example, in a statement released after the permits were granted, NOIA President Randall Luthi accused groups opposed to seismic testing of "unsupported hyperbolic fearmongering." Luthi is a former Wyoming state lawmaker and aide to Dick Cheney when he served in Congress. Under President George W. Bush, Luthi served as head of the agency, since reorganized, that oversaw offshore drilling; his move from there to NOIA drew strong criticism from ethics watchdogs.

But opponents of seismic testing are not giving up. This week, they filed two federal lawsuits in South Carolina seeking to block the permits, claiming that they were granted in violation of federal laws. One was filed by a coalition of South Carolina mayors and businesses, while the other was filed by an alliance of environmental groups. In addition, attorneys general in several states have indicated they could intervene to stop the blasting, with South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson saying he plans to send a letter of opposition to the Trump administration.

"The Trump administration's rash decision to harm marine mammals hundreds of thousands of times in the hope of finding oil and gas is shortsighted and dangerous," said Diane Hoskins, campaign director at Oceana, among the parties to the environmentalist challenge. "More than 90 percent of the coastal municipalities in the blast zone have publicly opposed seismic airgun blasting off their coast. We won this fight before and we'll win it again."