Trump moves toward offshore oil testing in Atlantic

The Trump administration took a major step Friday toward allowing testing for offshore oil and natural gas under the Atlantic Ocean.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is letting five companies commit “incidental” harassment of marine mammals like whales and dolphins as part of their seismic testing to determine oil and gas deposits under the ocean floor, the agency said.

It’s the first time since the 1980s that the federal government has allowed seismic testing with airguns in the Atlantic Ocean, and it could lead to the first oil and natural gas drilling there in a similar timeframe.

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“We’ve carefully reviewed and ensured appropriate use of the best scientific information available in meeting the requirements of the [Marine Mammal Protection Act], the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act and other implementing regulations for these surveys,” Donna Wieting, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s office of protected resources, told reporters Friday.

“They require appropriate mitigation measures to reduce the impact of survey activity to marine mammals consistent with the requirements under the [Marine Mammal Protection Act],” she said. “The authorizations also require monitoring and reporting of any authorized take,” she continued, using the agency’s terminology for incidents of animal harm or harassment.

The announcement is an early step toward potentially allowing offshore drilling in the Atlantic for the first time in decades.

The companies that got authorizations are WesternGeco, TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Co., Spectrum Geo Inc., ION GeoVentures and CGG. Testing will be limited to the mid- and south-Atlantic coast, and it must start within a year.

NOAA’s approval is a key condition for the companies eventually getting permits for testing, but the Interior Department would have to make the final decisions on those authorizations.

Interior proposed earlier this year to allow drilling all along the Atlantic, as well as the Pacific and Gulf coasts. But any company wishing to drill would first do the seismic testing, which uses airgun blasts, before committing to any drilling.

The airgun blasts can travel thousands of miles and disrupt or hurt animals.

Conservation groups slammed the decision Friday as both harmful to wildlife and as a precursor to drilling.

“Just one week after issuing dire warnings on the catastrophic fallout of climate change to come, the Trump administration is opening our coastlines to for-profit companies to prospect for oil and gas — and is willing to sacrifice marine life, our coastal communities and fisheries in the process,” Michael Jasny, director of marine mammal protection at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

“This is the first step towards drilling and scientists warn that seismic activity alone could drive the endangered North American right whale to extinction,” he said.

"This action flies in the face of massive opposition to offshore drilling and exploration from over 90 percent of coastal municipalities in the proposed blast zone,” said Diane Hoskins, campaign director at Oceana.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden, Sanders lead field in Iowa poll The Memo: Cohen fans flames around Trump Memo Comey used to brief Trump on dossier released: report MORE is essentially giving these companies permission to harass, harm and possibly even kill marine life, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale — all in the pursuit of dirty and dangerous offshore oil."

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who is slated to be chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee next year, indicated that he will be scrutinizing the decision and other moves toward drilling when he wields the committee gavel.

“There is nothing this administration won’t do for the fossil fuel industry, including destroying local economies and ruining endangered species habitats,” he said. “The Natural Resources Committee is going to provide serious checks and balances on this behavior from day one in the next Congress.”

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) called for Congress to pass a bill that would ban seismic airgun testing in the Atlantic, a bill that he has already introduced.

“Seismic blasting and offshore drilling pose a threat to marine life and the coastal economies which depend on them. There is no justification for intentionally welcoming this kind of damage, particularly at a time when oil prices are low and fossil fuel corporations are posting record profits,” he said in a statement.

But the oil industry applauded the authorizations.

“Today’s announcement is one of many steps along a rigorous permitting process that helps to ensure that any future geophysical surveying in the Mid-and South Atlantic OCS would be properly managed and conducted so they have minimal impact on the marine environment and the industry can make the discoveries of resources that our economy will need for decades to come,” the American Petroleum Institute said.

“Mitigation measures such as having trained marine mammal observers onboard to watch for animals and order shut downs if appropriate are standard operating procedures designed to minimize impacts to marine life.”