Obama asked to halt seismic testing in the Atlantic

Illustration. Image source: International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC)
Illustration. Image source: International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC)

Fifty five members of the U.S. Congress joined together in sending a letter to President Obama requesting a halt to the permitting process for potential seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean.

These fifty five members include Representative Mark Sanford, who also opposed seismic testing and offshore drilling in the waters off the coast of South Carolina in April last year, and Representative Gerry Connolly, who expressed his concern in February last year after Virginia and neighboring states were included in the U.S. Department of the Interior’s draft five-year plan for offshore oil and gas development.

“If one is not going to do something, it doesn’t strike me as reasonable to prepare to do that something. Accordingly, it makes little sense to conduct seismic testing off the Atlantic coast, when the Atlantic Ocean has been excluded as a possible site for offshore drilling by the Department of Interior,” said Rep. Sanford.

To remind, in March 2016, the U.S. Department of Interior backed away from the proposed sale of offshore exploration acreage on the Mid and South Atlantic area as part of the 2017-2022 lease sale, citing local opposition and conflicts with competing commercial and military ocean uses.

Sanford added: “It should not move forward, if nothing else, because allowing seismic testing to proceed goes counter to the coastal communities I represent. They have spoken clearly that they do not want this blasting.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly said: “I’ve repeatedly made the case that drilling off Virginia’s coast poses significant and irreversible consequences to Virginia’s economy, jeopardizes the Defense Department’s presence in the region, and threatens our coastal communities and natural resources.

“The Department of Interior’s decision to remove the Atlantic from offshore oil and gas exploration was the responsible thing to do. Moving forward with seismic testing is unnecessary and would threaten the progress we’ve made to protect our coastal communities.”

Full text of the letter below:

Dear Mr. President:

We are writing regarding potential geological and geophysical (G&G) activities in the Atlantic Ocean, including seismic airgun blasting. The process for providing permits for Atlantic G&G is currently underway, led by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). We strongly urge your Administration to refrain from permitting this harmful seismic blasting to avoid negative impacts on ocean wildlife, including marine mammals and fish.

On March 15, the Department of the Interior removed the proposed Atlantic lease sale from the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Proposed Program. Notwithstanding this action, however, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has indicated that it will proceed with the seismic permitting process, reviewing applications by industry to shoot tens of thousands of miles of seismic line during the first year of activity alone.

With the Atlantic Ocean withdrawn from the Proposed Program, seismic airgun blasting is unnecessary and should not proceed.

Seismic airgun blasting for oil and natural gas is an extremely disruptive activity in the ocean. A significant body of peer-reviewed science demonstrates that seismic airgun blasting can cause the catch rates of some commercial fish species to plummet, displace fish over large areas, and broadly disrupt the feeding and breeding behaviors of whales and other marine life.

Last year, a group of 75 marine scientists sharply criticized the Administration’s 2014 decision, to introduce seismic surveys to the Atlantic and cautioned that impacts on the region’s fish and marine mammal populations would be “significant, long-lasting, and widespread.”

Although a wide range of marine species will be negatively impacted by seismic airgun blasting such as commercial fish species, the North Atlantic right whale, one of the most endangered whales on the planet, is particularly vulnerable. With approximately 500 individuals remaining, seismic airgun blasting could accelerate the species’ further decline.

Conducting seismic airgun blasting in the near future would be unwise for another reason. New technology that substitutes the explosive blasts released by seismic airguns with a lower-intensity “hum” is in development and is expected to be ready for commercial use before 2020. With no Atlantic lease sales included in the upcoming five-year plan, it would be worthwhile to wait for the availability of new technology, and then re-evaluate the cost-benefit analysis of energy resource exploration in the Atlantic Ocean.

In addition, it is important to note that most seismic data are proprietary and are not shared with the public, local leaders, or federal elected officials. The conditions for data disclosure are extremely restrictive, if disclosure is allowed at all. In fact, those who share seismic data in an unsanctioned manner risk significant penalties. It will therefore be impossible for coastal citizens to weigh the profitability of offshore oil and gas deposits against their coastal livelihoods. The absence of the information needed to perform such a crucial cost-benefit analysis further necessitates delaying the permitting for seismic airgun blasting for oil and gas reserves in the Atlantic Ocean.

Opposition to seismic airgun blasting among coastal communities is widespread and growing. Of the 112 local resolutions passed to oppose offshore oil and gas development, 95 of these specifically oppose seismic airgun blasting. Coastal communities recognize that seismic airgun blasting is a grave threat to their way of life, including economies based heavily on fishing and tourism.

Coastal opposition includes actions by the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic Fishery Management Councils, the bodies responsible for managing many of the fisheries in the proposed area for seismic blasting. These Councils, which include industry representatives, have formally amended their policies to request protection for fisheries and fish habitats from energy exploration and development activities for the species and areas managed by the Councils.

Although the Atlantic Ocean has been precluded from oil and natural gas production for now, exploration in the form of seismic airgun blasting continues to threaten productive fisheries, and marine organisms and ecosystems. We ask that you protect this important and productive area from unnecessary, long-lasting harm and halt consideration of all G&G oil and gas permits.

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