Dec. 03–Virginia conservationists are blasting the Trump administration’s decision to reverse course and approve seismic air gun surveys along the Atlantic coast to search for buried oil and gas reserves.
The groups cite widespread public opposition to seismic blasting and offshore drilling, as well as the harm posed to marine life and coastal economies that rely on healthy waters and wetlands.
“This action flies in the face of massive opposition to offshore drilling and exploration from over 90 percent of coastal municipalities in the proposed blast zone,” said Diane Hoskins, campaign director at the D.C.-based advocacy group Oceana. “President (Donald) Trump is essentially giving these companies permission to harass, harm and possibly even kill marine life.”
“Offshore drilling in our region would pose far too many risks to the health of coastal waters and the Chesapeake Bay, fishing, aquaculture, tourism and all jobs that depend on clean water,” said Lisa Feldt, vice president for environmental protection and restoration at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “We need to run away from offshore drilling, not move towards it.”
Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, said his members “condemn the Trump administration’s tone-deaf push forward in the search for oil we don’t need.”
And at the Southern Environmental Law Center, headquartered in Charlottesville, senior attorney Catherine Wannamaker said “communities up and down the coast have made clear they do not support seismic blasting in the Atlantic, and they will continue to fight the Trump administration turning its back on them.”
On Friday, NOAA Fisheries gave five energy companies what are called “incidental harassment authorizations” because they permit them “to incidentally, but not intentionally, harass marine mammals” during geophysical survey activities in the Atlantic.
Under former President Barack Obama, the federal agency had denied the permits, reasoning after years of scientific study and public input that the value of information gained didn’t outweigh potential risks. Obama’s five-year energy plan issued in 2016 removed 94 percent of coastal waters from federal lease-sales.
This year, Trump proposed his own five-year plan to put 90 percent of federal coastal waters from New Jersey to Florida in play for potential oil and gas drilling.
The first step for energy companies to proceed is to conduct seismic surveys to find where and how much oil and gas is buried in the seabed to help determine if it’s worth trying to retrieve it.
Air guns shoot powerful pressurized blasts that form sound waves that travel through the water column to the seafloor. The echoes of those sound waves provide information about what lies beneath.
According to Oceana, a single ship can tow up to 96 air guns that can shoot every few seconds for months at a time. The noise can be heard for up to 2,500 miles, and government studies show they can injure, deafen or even kill dolphins, whales, sea turtles, fish and shellfish. At particular risk is the North Atlantic right whale, which is on the brink of extinction.
The permits require that companies take measures to try to reduce or mitigate such impacts.
Oceana claims that offshore drilling activities threaten more than 1.5 million jobs and nearly $108 billion in GDP for a total of less than seven months’ worth of oil and less than six months’ worth of gas.
But energy companies say such claims are based on outdated and inadequate surveys and that offshore drilling is much safer than it used to be.
Last week, a national coalition of energy interests released its own report that claims offshore oil and gas could be a boon to coastal communities.
Explore Offshore, co-chaired by former Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, estimates Virginia alone could reap $1.57 billion in cumulative tax revenues over 20 years from offshore-related activities.
Webb, also a former Secretary of the Navy, advocates an all-of-the-above approach to energy policy to bolster national security and economic health.
“It’s basic common sense for us to be able to use American technology and know-how in order to explore the areas along America’s Outer Continental Shelf to see what’s out there and to have a discussion about where some of these areas might be opened up for oil production,” Webb said.
Miles Morin, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council in Richmond, says potential tax revenues “could be a major boost for investments throughout the state in areas such as education and rebuilding infrastructure.”
He said oil- and gas-related activities along the Atlantic coast could support nearly 25,000 jobs in Virginia within 20 years.
But opposition to offshore oil and gas exploration remains strong.
Every East Coast governor but one opposes offshore drilling activities, along with thousands of state and federal officials, coastal communities, businesses and fishing families, as well as regional fishery management councils.
In Virginia, 20 communities officially oppose seismic surveys and drilling, including Newport News, Hampton, Williamsburg, James City County, Poquoson, Isle of Wight County, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth and Suffolk.
Both Virginia senators — Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner — are against drilling off Virginia’s coast.
“On top of ignoring the concerns of the Pentagon and Virginians around drilling,” Kaine said Monday, “the Trump administration is now also ignoring evidence that seismic testing could harm thousands of marine animals and endanger the livelihood of Virginia’s fisheries. It’s another example of the administration’s warped view that oceans are only valuable for drilling, when in reality a strong economy and quality of life depend on a healthy environment.”
U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat who represents the 4th District, said “Virginians have too much to lose when we prioritize polluters’ profits over our oceans.”
“Unlike the Trump administration,” said McEachin, “we have not forgotten about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, one of the worst environmental disasters in American history.”
In 2010, the BP-operated drill rig Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 rig operators and spilling 4.9 million barrels of crude into the gulf.
Before seismic testing can begin, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management must issue final permits.
Tamara Dietrich, 757-247-7892, firstname.lastname@example.org, DP_Dietrich
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