Trump Administration Gives Go-Ahead to Seismic Surveys in Atlantic Ocean

Approval for ‘Incidental Harassment of Marine Mammals’
Dec 05, 2018
Source: NOAA

Late last month the Trump administration authorized five companies to conduct geological and geophysical seismic surveys in the Atlantic Ocean, from Delaware to Florida, to seek oil and gas under the sea floor. In expectation of the effect of the seismic pulses on marine life, the National Marine Fisheries Services has issued Incidental Harassment Authorizations for the project. This movement toward offshore drilling has sparked outrage among conservation groups and other critics.

“This marks the first actionable step to accelerating new offshore drilling in the Atlantic,” Pete Stauffer and Katie Day wrote in an article for the Surfrider Foundation, posted on, which also encourages members to contact elected officials to urge them to “protect marine wildlife from this harmful practice.”

“According to an environmental impact statement completed by the federal government in 2014, seismic surveys in the South and Mid-Atlantic could injure up to 130,000 marine mammals, including the bottlenose dolphin and critically endangered right whale. Seismic surveys would also displace and cause impacts – such as temporary hearing loss – to a broad range of fish and invertebrate populations,” Stauffer and Day note.

A Nov. 30 post on offered a “biological opinion on the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s issuance” of the five seismic survey permits to search for oil and gas, and detailed the associated IHAs. The document notes, “On June 5, 2017, the Permits and Conservation Division requested formal consultation on their proposed issuance of five IHAs for the same G&G companies seeking BOEM permits. The IHAs would authorize incidental harassment of marine mammals (both Endangered Species Act-listed and non-ESA-listed) that may occur as a result of the proposed geophysical surveys.”

In 2015, a Rutgers University-led seismic survey off the coast of Long Beach Island – unrelated to oil and gas exploration – was much maligned on the coast, with opposition from the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection, elected officials, fishermen and organizations such as the nonprofit Clean Ocean Action. Gregory Mountain, professor of earth and planetary science at Rutgers University, though, said following the completion of that strictly scientific study, “There was no evidence of harm” to marine life, and, additionally, “commercial and recreational fishing went on around us.”

“We need the information obtained from the research use of airguns to increase our knowledge of the environmental role of Earth processes,” Lincoln Hollister, emeritus professor of geosciences at Princeton University, stated the year before the Rutgers survey commenced.

However, despite disagreement about the effect of the seismic pulses on sea life, all of those in favor of and opposed to Rutgers’ solely scientific seismic survey agreed that no one wants to see oil washing up on our shores.

“The fact is that all seismic studies have similarities,” said Hollister. “Indeed, seismic studies may lead to imaging of structures favorable for oil and gas. But if you don’t want oil and gas developed off shore, the place to stop it is in the exploratory drilling phase. One doesn’t know if a structure contains oil or gas until it is drilled.”

Although President Obama blocked offshore petroleum extraction in the Atlantic, the Trump administration reversed this decision.

Trump, said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, “doesn’t care if he kills mammals, or impacts fisheries or the environment, for the sake of Big Oil. The ocean off our coasts is home to many threatened and endangered species. … Not only would oil and gas drilling directly put these species at risk, but seismic exploration for sites would as well.”

The federal Department of the Interior, the N.J. Sierra Club pointed out, has proposed opening 90 percent of U.S. federal offshore waters to the fossil fuel industry, exposing the coastline to the risk of an oil spill and other degradation.

“Offshore drilling,” Tittel stated, “jeopardizes our state’s tourism, ecosystems and fisheries while harming people who live along the coast. Drilling anywhere in the mid-Atlantic would directly put our coasts at risk. New Jersey relies on our coasts for $28 billion in tourism and over $40 billion in overall economic impact. The oil would be taken to refineries in our area, further putting us at risk.”

The Sierra Club has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to protect the shoreline. “We have fought to protect our coast for 40 years and will fight to protect it for another 40 years,” said Tittel.

Surfrider Foundation chapters, too, have banded together to oppose Atlantic Ocean seismic exploration successfully in the past and are currently fighting the offshore oil drilling proposed in the 2019-2024 Draft Proposed Program issued by the Trump administration.

It’s critical, said Surfrider, that those concerned about seismic surveys and oil drilling in the Atlantic contact their representatives in Congress “to demand their leadership in opposing this damaging practice.”

“The good news is that some of the federal leaders are listening and taking steps to limit seismic activities in the ocean – both due to the impacts caused by the surveys themselves and the implications for new oil and gas development. For example, ocean champions in the Senate and House have introduced the Atlantic Seismic Airgun Protection Act (S 1263/ HR 2158) to ban this activity off the East Coast. We need to champion such legislation that will stop seismic surveys for oil and gas under this and future administrations,” the foundation explained.

“Whales and dolphins are among the most magnificent creatures on earth, but they cannot vote or call members of Congress.”

Juliet Kaszas-Hoch

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