Today the Trump administration took the next big step towards opening the east coast to offshore oil. It proposed permitting the oil and gas industry to harm marine mammals while prospecting with seismic airguns—an environmentally assaultive activity that has stirred wide opposition in the region.
If the permits are finally approved, five surveys would crisscross the mid-Atlantic and southeast coasts, from the New Jersey/ Delaware border to central Florida, logging tens of thousands of miles as they go back and forth over the same areas. Each ship would troll the water with an array of industrial-sized airguns, whose blasts, as loud as explosions, rock the water every ten seconds or so for weeks and months on end. Next year would see still more seismic tests, similarly proposed and approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service, with leasing and drilling likely to follow.
Seismic blasting is not only the great precursor to drilling, it is in itself a serious assault on our coasts. In 2015, a group of 75 scientists—including leading experts from Duke, Cornell, Stanford, and other institutions—warned of “significant, long-lasting, and widespread” harm to fish and marine mammal populations should the blasting proceed. And for good reason.
Among many other things, seismic is known to
- silence endangered baleen whales and cause some to abandon their habitat over tens to hundreds of thousands of square kilometers;
- disrupt foraging in marine mammal species as diverse as sperm whales and harbor porpoises, preventing them from getting the food they need to survive and reproduce, from many miles away;
- displace fish from their habitat on coral reefs and in open ocean, dramatically suppressing catch rates for some commercial fish species over thousands of square kilometers;
- injure and kill fish and invertebrates, and impair their development at early life stages; and
- compromise the ability of many marine species to communicate, over many hundreds of miles around a single survey.
Over the years, the oil and gas industry has tried to spin seismic every which way, sometimes calling it an “ultrasound of the earth,” as though replicating explosions were the latest thing in obstetric care, and more recently likening it to lightning storms. A Cornell biologist had a nice riposte to that one: “Yeah, well, imagine living through a nine-month lightning storm.”
So how does the Fisheries Service justify issuing these five permits? It starts with alternative science. The Service, applying a twenty-year-old standard that it admits is outdated, pretends that marine life is impacted only within a short distance, ignoring the overwhelming science that says otherwise. And then the Service throws in some creative accounting—treating each survey as though none of the others were taking place, so that the impacts are never added. That’s nonsense.
The fact is that seismic blasting, and the drilling that follows, represent a serious threat to the coasts and oceans and the communities who depend on them. Commercial and recreational fishing off the mid- and southeast Atlantic generate billions of dollars in annual sales and support close to 200,000 jobs. The tourism economy is responsible for many billions more. It makes no sense to risk these job-intensive industries, our beaches, our marine environment, and our clean-energy future for the sake of Big Oil.
Yet hope lies with the coast. As I noted last month in response to President Trump’s destructive Executive Order on offshore oil and gas, seismic blasting in the Atlantic has met with broad public opposition. More than 100 municipalities from New Jersey to Florida have adopted resolutions rejecting it; more than 40,000 local businesses and business organizations are allied against it. The region’s two Fisheries Management Councils have repeatedly objected to it, as have numerous fishers’ associations up and down the Atlantic. On Capitol Hill, as in the community, the opposition is truly bipartisan with leadership shown on both sides of the aisle, on both seismic and drilling.
Coastal businesses, towns, and residents said, “Hell, no,” to the Obama administration when it proposed turning their home into an oil company siphon. And I expect they’ll say, “Hell, no,” to Trump as well.
I’ll post soon on how you can send comments to the Fisheries Service. In the meantime, please call your representatives in Congress and demand that they oppose this terrible plan to blast and drill in the Atlantic.