Editorial: Shut door on seismic surveying for good off southeastern coast

Charleston Post and Courier
July 13, 2019

State opposition to seismic testing along the Southeastern Seaboard should be reason enough for the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to deny a permit for offshore oil exploration. But if it isn’t, the surveying firm should withdraw its application, as should the other companies with pending permits.

The Trump administration’s five-year plan for opening the Atlantic Coast and other federal waters to drilling is hung up in the courts and might never go forward. That would render whatever data is gleaned from the survey useless.

So why put the cart before the horse?

On Monday, South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control formally objected to the proposed survey, joining North Carolina’s sister agency in opposition. Georgia, Virginia and Maryland have also registered their objections. In all, 10 Atlantic Coast states are fighting offshore oil exploration.

WesternGeco, which uses sonic blasts to look for oil and gas deposits, has had its permit pending for years in the on-again, off-again effort to further open up federal waters for oil and gas exploration. And at this point, the company probably has more to lose than to gain in pressing its case. Should BOEM deny its permit, WesternGeco could appeal the decision via the Commerce Department.

If the permit is granted, thousands of sea mammals, including critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, could be injured, disoriented or deprived of food by unrelenting blasts in a swath of ocean 19 to 50 miles offshore stretching from southern Maryland to northern Florida, according to an “incidental take” permit issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Emerging science also suggests seismic testing, which produces blasts up to 260 decibels, can kill fish eggs and plankton, the very building blocks of the ocean food chain.

The majority of residents up and down the coast oppose testing and drilling. Out of 1,700-plus public comments recently received by DHEC, not one person voiced support for seismic testing.

No significant gas or oil reserves have ever been found in the region, and there’s no indication Big Oil is anxious to drill in the Atlantic.

Test wells drilled between 1947 and the early 1980s never panned out. In 2012, BOEM estimated the entire Atlantic continental shelf might contain about 3.3 billion barrels of oil (enough to last the nation for about a half-year) and 31 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (about a year’s supply).

In June, the U.S. House approved several measures aimed at protecting the Atlantic Coast from offshore drilling for at least a year. The S.C. Legislature also approved a one-year proviso that would block any public agency from investing in onshore oil-related infrastructure.

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., is also pushing a bill that would permanently ban offshore drilling in Atlantic and Pacific federal waters.

So it seems ludicrous that BOEM would continue to process seismic testing permits. An overwhelming majority of coastal residents oppose the idea. Political opposition is growing. And while there’s no clear path to drilling, there are plenty of proven risks to sea life and the environment.

BOEM should deny permits to WesternGeco and the five other companies seeking surveying permits. But it would be much simpler if the companies would simply withdraw their applications.


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