October 5, 2020
By Jim Waymer
Legal maneuverings last week in a South Carolina court have some environmentalists celebrating a halt to plans to use seismic airguns that blast sound at the seafloor to search the Atlantic Ocean for fossil fuels.
But other activist fear it’s only a matter of time before industry tries once again to explore the Atlantic for oil and gas, despite the potential harm to whales and other marine life.
“This process will all start again if Mr. Trump is re-elected,” said Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, one of the entities suing in federal court to stop the seismic airgun surveys.
Knapp worries that in a second term, Trump would rescind his executive order from last month that extended a moratorium on drilling in the South Atlantic and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Before conducting seismic airgun testing, the federal government requires companies to obtain so-called Incidental Harassment Authorizations (IHAs) from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But those permits — issued two years ago for five companies — are set to expire on Nov. 30. The permits can’t be renewed, extended or reissued without the companies reapplying and starting the process all over again, NOAA officials say.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel of South Carolina held a teleconference with parties to the lawsuit, instructing them that they have until today (Monday, Oct. 5) to file memorandums or proposed joint consent orders for the parties to reach common agreement on the matter.
“Communities can breathe a little easier knowing the Atlantic is now safe from seismic airgun blasting in 2020,” said Diane Hoskins, Oceana campaign director. “Over 90 percent of coastal municipalities in the proposed blast zone are opposed to opening our coast to offshore drilling and its dangerous precursor, seismic airgun blasting,” Hoskins said. “We are going to do everything in our power to permanently protect our coasts and ensure dynamite-like blasting never starts.”
Speculators seeking new fossil fuel deposits want to fire seismic airguns at the bottom of the ocean along the Eastern Seaboard. The guns are powerful enough to send sound waves miles into the earth’s crust. The blasts, environmentalists warn, could easily rip through rusting drums and missile casings.
Florida like other states has no law or policy to force oil explorers to prove definitively there’s no explosives or other dangerous waste where they plan to survey the sea floor before they start. Some munitions experts worry that could spell disaster, if the airguns disturb old jettisoned chemical weapons or other forgotten-about munitions piles along the ocean floor.
Attorneys general from 10 states (but not Florida) joined a federal lawsuit last year to stop the air gun tests. They argued the tests would harm whales and other marine life and put coastal economies in jeopardy.
“This is a huge victory not just for us but for every coastal community that loudly and persistently protested the possibility of seismic blasting,” Catherine Wannamaker, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said of last week’s court actions. “There will be no boats in the water this year, and because this resets the clock, there will be no boats in the water for a long time. And we’ll continue fighting to keep it that way.”
While some drilling opponents celebrated last week’s court developments, industry officials warned the America’s thirst for more oil isn’t going away.
“The nation’s long-term energy security can only be ensured with a lasting commitment to offshore oil and natural gas development,” Andy Radford, a senior policy advisor for American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry trade organization, said in a prepared statement. “In the long-run, the world is going to demand more energy, not less, and our industry’s priority is ensuring that demand is met by energy produced here in the United States.”
Industry officials such as Radford insist the areas to be surveyed will be relatively small and that they are armed with the technology and know-how to avoid sunken dangers. They also insist that seismic testing does not pose the danger critics claim. And they point to the potential for a massive economic shot-in-the-arm. The American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas industry trade and lobbying group, points to a 2018 study by Calash and Northern Economics that projected oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf could generate $260 billion in spending over 20 years, and almost 265,000 jobs nationwide.
“Access to offshore energy is critical for our nation’s economic growth and national security and is a vital revenue source for conservation programs across the country,” Radford said. “Safe seismic surveying continues to be an essential step for that vital domestic energy development.”
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management plans to put the Atlantic into the next five-year leasing plan that starts in 2022 and the seismic permit applications likely would be submitted immediately, Knapp warns.
“This battle might be won but not the war,” Knapp said. “Only a new Congress passing a bill and a new President signing it to ban offshore drilling in the Atlantic will do that.”