June 30, 2017
Seismic blasting, oil & gas drilling in Atlantic? Now’s the time to comment
The public is now being asked to comment on the president’s proposal to open up the Atlantic and all other federal offshore planning areas for potential oil and gas drilling.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and President Donald Trump announced Thursday that the 45-day public comment period on a new Five-Year National Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing Program on the Outer Continental Shelf will begin Monday. The comment period will close Aug. 17.
Trump’s proposed plan would replace the five-year plan devised under President Barack Obama, which is expected to take effect this summer and which removed the Atlantic, from Virginia to Florida, as well as the Pacific from consideration for offshore drilling. That plan did allow potential activity in select areas of the Gulf of Mexico and off Alaska.
Trump’s plan is to return all 26 planning areas in OCS federal waters in the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and Alaska for consideration for oil and gas lease sales.
“Offering more areas for energy exploration and responsible development was a cornerstone of the president’s campaign, and this action is the first step in making good on that promise for offshore oil and gas,” Zinke said in a statement announcing the plan.
The administration, he said, wants to develop a program “that respects environmental and economic sensitivities but still allows us to responsibly develop our resources.”
Obama’s 2017-2022 plan was the result of nearly three years’ review of the best available science, impact studies and more than a million public comments. Trump’s five-year plan is for 2019-2024 and will undergo the same two- to three-year development and review process.
Environmental groups that successfully pushed to remove the Atlantic from Obama’s energy plan are now doing the same for Trump’s.
“The key thing to keep in mind is that, while the administration has changed and the desire to drill has changed, nothing else has,” Caroline Wood, campaign organizer at the D.C.-based advocacy group Oceana, said in a phone interview Friday. “We’ve still got the same constituents, the same towns — even moreso now than before, now that Virginia Beach has come out in opposition. We haven’t changed our opposition and our resolve is as strong as ever.”
Last week, the Virginia Beach City Council, after maintaining a neutral stance, voted unanimously to oppose offshore drilling in the Atlantic.
Sierra Weaver, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., said in a statement Friday that “businesses, elected officials and communities up and down the coast have made it clear they do not support offshore drilling.”
“Despite clear opposition in the Southeast,” Weaver said, “President Trump has reopened what was and still is a settled debate in our region.”
Kim Coble of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation called the plan a “direct attack on the health and economic vitality of the Chesapeake Bay.”
But the Virginia Petroleum Council in Richmond applauded the idea of developing a new energy plan for the region.
“Offshore production would diversify the Virginia economy, create jobs and growth for many existing Virginia businesses, and bring whole new industries to Virginia,” said VPC Executive Director Miles Morin in an emailed statement.
He urged new scientific surveys to update our understanding of what oil and gas deposits lie under the sea floor to better inform decisions about offshore energy development.
NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service recently moved forward on such surveys when it issued five draft Incidental Harassment Authorization permits for the Atlantic Ocean. These are essentially passes to disturb or harm marine mammals while conducting offshore activities, such as seismic blasting to search for subsea pockets of oil and gas.
Public comments on the draft IHA permits are being accepted until next Thursday.
Parties must also apply to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for permission to conduct seismic activity, and BOEM is currently reviewing those seismic permits.
Wood said she expects the IHAs to be issued shortly after the comment period closes, and the seismic permits shortly after that.
Trump issued an executive order in April streamlining the seismic permitting process.
But 103 members of Congress, including Hampton Roads representatives Robert C. “Bobby” Scott and A. Donald McEachin, signed a June 28 letter to Zinke voicing “strong opposition” to those IHA permits and to offshore oil and gas exploration.
“The decision to move forward with permits for seismic airgun activities for subsea oil and gas deposits puts at risk the vibrant Atlantic coast economies dependent on healthy ocean ecosystems, which generate $95 billion in gross domestic product and support nearly 1.4 million jobs each year,” the letter reads.
The representatives argue that any information gathered from those seismic surveys is proprietary by law, available only to the oil and gas industry — not to the public, to local or state governments or even to members of Congress. Coastal residents would assume the “significant risk” of offshore drilling, they write, without having a say in decisions.
They also argue that “countless” coastal residents and elected officials reject offshore drilling, including 41,000 businesses and 500,000 fishing families. More than 120 local governments have passed resolutions opposing drilling in the Atlantic and Eastern Gulf. NASA, the Department of Defense and the Florida Defense Support Task Force have also expressed concern, they write.
•To comment on the proposed Five-Year National Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing Program:
Online, go to boem.gov/Public-Engagement-Opportunities, open the “Documents Open for Comment” link and follow instructions. Comments will be accepted July 3 through Aug. 17.
Written comments to: Kelly Hammerle, National Program Manager, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, 45600 Woodland Road-VAM-LD, Sterling, VA 20166
•To comment on the Incidental Harassment Authorization permits for seismic surveys:
Email comments to: ITP.Laws@noaa.gov
Written comments to: Jolie Harrison, Chief, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910
Comments must be sent no later than July 6.