Special Report: Trump Administration Approves Seismic Blasting in Atlantic Ocean
December 8, 2018
Update - 12/11/2018: A coalition of nine environmental groups sued the federal government today to prevent the seismic blasting from occurring. The Center for Biological Diversity stated in their press release, "The lawsuit, filed in South Carolina, claims that the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act when it issued Incidental Harassment Authorizations (IHAs) in late November. Those permits authorize five companies to harm or harass marine mammals while conducting seismic airgun blasting in an area twice the size of California, stretching from Cape May, N.J. to Cape Canaveral, Fla." The announcement of this lawsuit is very welcome news and gives us some much-needed hope. As promised, here are the plaintiffs in case you would like to donate to any of the groups involved in the lawsuit: Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, North Carolina Coastal Federation, South Carolina Conservation League, One Hundred Miles (GA), Oceana, Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation. Also, the legal complaint is here if you would like to check it out.
North Atlantic right whale #4094 and her newborn calf swimming by her side, 40 miles east of Jekyll Island, GA on January 21, 2016. Twenty three hours earlier #4094 was spotted 30 miles away with no calf, confirming that her calf was less than 1 day old in this photo.
credit: Georgia DNR, NOAA permit #15488
The Trump administration has approved five permits for seismic blasting off the east coast of the United States, dealing a devastating blow to the protection of North Atlantic right whales. Seismic blasting, sometimes given the more innocent term 'seismic testing', is done in order to help identify pockets of oil and gas so exploratory wells can be drilled - the same type of well that resulted in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill that devastated the Gulf of Mexico. Seismic blasting is a serious threat to many species including North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales.
A letter from 75 marine scientists to President Obama regarding proposed blasting in the Atlantic Ocean in 2015 discussed the horrific nature of it, stating that it involves "high-volume airguns, which fire approximately every 10-12 seconds, often for weeks or months at a time, with sound almost as powerful as that produced by underwater chemical explosives." The letter stated, "In all, the activities contemplated by the Interior Department would result in more than 20 million seismic shots". The latest permits that have been approved would allow seismic blasting to occur from the New Jersey/Delaware border all the way down to Florida. The Washington Post reported that the blasting, "could harm tens of thousands of dolphins, whales and other marine animals, according to studies."
Michael Jasny, Director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project, Land & Wildlife program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has stated in a post on the NRDC website, "For right whales, seismic blasting represents a major stressor and a source of widespread disruption — a threat to their ability to communicate, to breed [and] to maintain bonds between mothers and calves." He also stated, "This is the first step towards drilling and scientists warn that seismic activity alone could drive the endangered North American right whale to extinction". The NRDC has a clip of a seismic blast here if you want to hear what it sounds like, be advised that it's an .mp4 file and starts immediately so make sure to check your volume. That sound is what will be blasted over vast areas of the ocean, every 10 to 12 seconds, if the industry gets their way.
The oil industry has wanted to conduct underwater blasting in the Atlantic for awhile but in December of 2016 the Obama administration protected some areas of the Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of the US from blasting. And, in January of 2017 six permit applications to conduct seismic blasting off the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast US coast were denied. They looked at the facts and crucial research done by marine scientists over the years and decided that the potential economic benefit of oil drilling on the Atlantic coast was outweighed by the potentially devastating damage to the species that reside there. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) stated in a press release at the time, "In the present circumstances and guided by an abundance of caution, we believe that the value of obtaining the geophysical and geological information from new airgun seismic surveys in the Atlantic does not outweigh the potential risks of those surveys’ acoustic pulse impacts on marine life."
In a post from November 24th of this year where we talked about potential seismic blasting in the Arctic and the threat that North Pacific right whales would face from that we also talked about North Atlantic right whales and stated, "It will be a struggle to make the protections there [the Atlantic] permanent but for now the North Atlantic right whales in those waters are at least safe from the noise from sonic blasts." Unfortunately, their safety could be short-lived as the Trump administration has now issued these five permits to conduct seismic blasting that would be done in areas stretching from New Jersey to Florida, all crucial habitat for North Atlantic right whales. The area of the coast where southern Georgia and northern Florida meet is also the only known calving grounds of these whales and there were only five calves born in 2017 with none seen in 2018 so this is a particularly precious area that must be protected from harm. The potential seismic blasting and oil drilling off the Florida coast marks a change from 2017 when they were exempted from a plan to drill in federal waters bordering their state. A number of other states wanted exemptions but Florida is the only state that received one which may have actually been a violation of federal law.
National Geographic reported that, "To mitigate impact to wildlife, NOAA says seismic blasts will not be allowed from November to April in certain regions of the Atlantic where North Atlantic right whales are known to migrate. Additionally, boats conducting seismic operations will be required to have a NOAA observer on board to monitor incidental take." The 'Incidental Harm Authorizations' allowing the incidental 'take' (bureaucratic term for killing) of marine species that were approved are permits that allow the killing of endangered species as long as it's 'by accident'. Going out and directly hurting the whales with airguns with no documentable justification or permits would be illegal but going out and directly hurting the whales while you're looking for oil and gas? Completely fine, according to NOAA.
During a press call, biologist Benjamin Laws from NOAA said, "observers will notify when whales are in the vicinity and that blasts will not be allowed within 56 miles (90 kilometers) of endangered marine mammals." This buffer zone is pathetic and it's actually extremely insulting to us that they are saying they have perfect visibility, and sighting abilities of 56 miles in each direction, and that the buffer is good enough. Diane Hoskins from Oceana notes that the sound from these intense blasts can travel over 2,000 miles. And, although North Atlantic right whales are generally seen in certain areas during certain times of the year, they are regularly far apart from each other and it's impossible to tell where they all are at any given time.
For example, from November 24th to December 4th there were nine possible and fifteen definite acoustic detections of North Atlantic right whales in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada and eight separate sightings south of Nantucket, Massachusetts - one of which was a group of 17 North Atlantic right whales on November 26th. And, female right whales give birth off the coast of northern Florida and southern Georgia, usually doing so from late December to January so it's absolutely possible that some are already in the area. This means that in just two areas being actively surveyed within a much larger area that there have been both confirmed and probable sightings from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Florida - most of their main range. The notion that NOAA can know where every single North Atlantic right whale is in a 2,000 square mile radius (the real danger zone) or even a 56 mile radius (the joke of a danger zone that they are using) is absolutely absurd, as is the notion that they can confirm those areas to be right whale-free during the blasting.
National Geographic went further, reporting, "Laws says NOAA's decision to grant incidental take authorizations also considered whether species that marine mammals rely on for prey would be impacted. They determined the blasts wouldn't be so detrimental that they might impact how much food is available." This is one of the most disturbing and frightening things we've read about the approval of these permits as it's blatantly false. First of all, the NRDC reported that in a recent study scientists discovered "the blasts from a single seismic airgun caused a statistically significant decrease in zooplankton 24 hours after exposure. Abundance fell by at least 50% in more than half (58%) of the species observed. The scientists also found two to three times more dead zooplankton following airgun exposure compared to controls and, shockingly, krill larvae were completely wiped out."
As horrific as this already is, in that post linked to above regarding that research and a seismic blasting proposal in 2017 the NRDC states, "However, these findings are based on the results from a single airgun with a volume of 150 cubic inches. The companies proposing to conduct blasting in the Atlantic will use vessels that will each tow an airgun ‘array’ comprising between 24-40 airguns, with a combined value of 4808-6420 cubic inches. The guns will all blast simultaneously, every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for months at a time. This means the proposed surveys could affect zooplankton over much larger areas." Another study found that ship noise, which resembles how seismic blasts will sound from far away, has been shown to release stress chemicals in blue mussels to a level so harmful that it degrades their DNA.[pg. 213 of PDF]
The seismic blasting could definitely impact how much food is available because in addition to the destructive and widespread nature of even one company conducting blasting, there will be multiple companies doing this. And as we've stated, it's impossible for researchers to know how many members of a species are in a 2,000 mile radius, even large species like North Atlantic right whales. Aaron Rice, a research associate with the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, stated that "The rationale of the IHA [Incidental Harm Authorization] is not based on the best available science, and there have been many recent studies which highlight the further potential harm of seismic surveys to marine life."
Issuing these permits and admitting they would harm North Atlantic right whales would be bad enough but it's actually worse that they are lying about it. Their dishonesty further shows what a disgusting sham the permitting process has become under the current administration. The American Petroleum Institute provided a statement to the media through a spokesman that said, "The U.S. needs to know what energy resources exist off of our shores and we are hopeful that permits for surveying for offshore oil and natural gas and a full national offshore leasing plan to explore and develop the outer continental shelf will move forward soon." We only need to know what oil or gas exists offshore if we have the intention of drilling for it but the ultimate goal is to switch completely to renewable energy and never drill for that oil or gas, no matter how much is there (although estimates only put it at 3% of US national reserves). The outer continental shelf should not be developed and should not be subjected to the noise pollution, ship traffic and risk of devastating oil spills that would come with offshore fossil fuel production.
The opposition to seismic blasting covers a wide variety of communities, local, state and federal politicians, government agencies and a vast array of groups ranging from environmental groups to organizations representing fishermen. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee who will most likely take over as chair in the next Congress, slammed the administration over the permit approvals and stated that it's "an alarming sign of [its] indifference to the fate of coastal communities and marine life, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale." He added, "There is nothing this administration won’t do for the fossil fuel industry, including destroying local economies and ruining endangered species habitats." Oceana has compiled a list of those concerned with and/or opposed to offshore drilling (and the seismic blasting associated with it) and it includes:
- Bipartisan opposition from every governor on the East and West coasts (except for the current governor of Maine but the incoming governor of Maine is opposed to it)
- Bipartisan opposition from more than 2,000 local, state and federal elected officials
- More than 315 municipalities on the East and West coast.
- Alliances representing more than 45,000 businesses and 500,000 fishing families
- Department of Defense, Air Force, NASA and the Florida Defense Support Task Force
- New England, South Atlantic, Mid-Atlantic and Pacific Fishery Management Councils
- Commercial and recreational fishing interests such as Southeastern Fisheries Association, Snook and Gamefish Foundation, Fisheries Survival Fund, Southern Shrimp Alliance, North Atlantic Marine Alliance, Billfish Foundation and International Game Fish Association
Also, just last month the voters of Florida approved an amendment to the Florida Constitution that bans offshore drilling in state waters (unfortunately these new permits cover federal waters). The ballot initiative received 68.9% of the vote, garnering 5,415,308 votes. The opposition to these dangerous, polluting activities is absolutely overwhelming as is the science which makes it clear that the decision to allow seismic blasting and offshore drilling was made with extreme hatred, arrogance and greed by all involved. Just last year, New Jersey made offshore drilling illegal in their state waters along with blocking 'construction of pipelines, docks and other facilities on the shore needed for drilling' (which puts a good roadblock in front of any federal drilling offshore). In a stunning assault on states' rights and the environment, the Republican-controlled House Natural Resources Committee responded to this new legislation by holding a hearing on legislation that would fine states that don't open their offshore areas to drilling. "Because these lands are owned by the public, taking these resources off the market represents a cost to taxpayers across the country," a committee memo said. "If a state chooses to forego development in an area with economically recoverable resources, the state will be required to offset the loss in revenue to the federal treasury."
This subservience to financial markets over the lives and well-being of various living beings (including us humans) is disturbing and proves that these folks have a dangerous and radically different mindset than most Americans. Considering this hostile Mafia-esque extortion racket that they're trying to implement, it's entirely possible that all or part of this new push for drilling on the East Coast is just a petty, vindictive attack on the people of these states who are rightfully opposed to extremely dangerous and damaging offshore drilling and the terrible activities like seismic blasting that are associated with it. This is a vicious and targeted assault on the wildlife and the people of the Atlantic coast, simply to increase the profits of a very few over the lives and well-being of all of the life, human and non-human alike. This nasty, horrific attack being unleashed upon the natural world in the western Atlantic Ocean is a sign of a very deep sickness, a belligerent mentality that puts personal profit above the lives of others. All of those involved know exactly what they are doing, they are not just disregarding life but treating it with contempt.
We want to protect all of the life on this planet that is affected by the extraction, transportation and consumption of oil and gas and repair the damage that these industries have already caused. As we stated when talking about the seismic blasting in the Arctic Refuge, this latest news only strengthens our resolve and makes the rest of us work even harder for a rapid switch to renewable energy, to protect North Atlantic right whales and to permanently protect the last remaining wild areas of our planet. Thankfully there are things we can do to help stop this that we list below.
1. Send a message to your member of Congress stating your opposition to seismic blasting. Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) introduced a bill earlier this year called the Atlantic Seismic Airgun Protection Act (H.R. 2158) and is renewing his call for the legislation to be passed. Currently there are 39 co-sponsors including 36 Democrats and 3 Republicans, two of whom lost their seats (ultimately to Democrats who also oppose offshore drilling). One of the Republicans was beaten in a primary by another Republican who supported offshore drilling but her opponent in the general election, Joe Cunningham (D-SC), made his opposition to offshore drilling a central part of his campaign and it appeared to be a factor in his win. Unfortunately it is extremely unlikely that it will pass right now with the 115th Congress only being in session for another month and with Republicans who support offshore drilling in control of the House and Senate.
The new, 116th Congress will convene on January 3rd and Democrats will be in control of the House, meaning that the Atlantic Seismic Airgun Protection Act (which we expect Rep. Beyer to introduce again) has a much better chance of being brought to the floor for a vote and actually being able to pass that vote as we are currently unaware of any Democrats that have announced their opposition and there is support for banning seismic blasting among at least some Republicans. The problem is the Senate, where Republicans increased their majority from 51-49 to 53-47 and will most likely not bring legislation banning seismic blasting to the floor for a vote. Even if the House and Senate passed legislation banning it, the President would not sign it and Congress wouldn't have enough votes to override a veto.
However, with all this being said, the efforts to outlaw seismic blasting must continue. Even if your members of Congress are already in favor of legislation to ban the practice, it's still important to let them know how many people in their district or state care about the issue so they work even harder to get the legislation passed. And, if your members of Congress are either undecided on the issue or in favor of the seismic blasting, it's important to at least try to push them to vote for legislation that would ban it and to let them know that there is opposition to their plan and that while this industry and their supporters are clinging onto dangerous, unnatural sources of energy - and the terrible ways it's extracted from the earth - that the rest of us care about the species that live in these areas. We will let you know when legislation is introduced in the new Congress regarding seismic blasting so you can send (polite and respectful) messages to your member of Congress.
2. We believe that in the short term, the best chance we have to stop seismic blasting and offshore drilling is if the courts side with lawsuits against the practice and issue injunctions against it. These permits were just announced so there are no official legal challenges yet but there are many large environmental groups that strongly oppose seismic blasting and will be looking into possible legal challenges. They will need donations to keep the legal challenges running strong so any donations to those groups can help. We will let you know of any groups bringing lawsuits for those that would like to donate. (See the update at the top of this page for information on the new lawsuit).
3. While our dream of a Constitutional amendment that bans all offshore oil and gas exploration is probably far off, a key way to help stop seismic blasting and offshore drilling is to reduce our energy consumption and switch to renewable energy as soon as we can. The less oil we use, the less profits the oil industry makes and the blasting and drilling that takes place to tap new oil wells becomes economically unviable. There are many things you can do to make your home energy efficient during warmer months and in cooler months so we can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. There are also key things you can do to reduce the energy usage of electronics in your home or office. Switching to LED light bulbs and purchasing Energy Star-rated appliances are also great ways to reduce energy usage. And, when it comes to your car, there are many things you can do to increase fuel efficiency.