Federal government allowing permits for seismic blasting in Atlantic Ocean to expire

All manner of marine life, from plankton to the largest of whales, will be spared from months of nonstop thunderous seismic blasts that could kill or harm them because the oil and gas explorers and the federal government are allowing their permits to expire on Nov. 30 — and it would take at least a year for them to obtain new ones — should they wish to, environmentalists say.

“If you had told me two years ago 2020 would begin and end without any seismic air gun testing I would have been elated; that’s why I’m elated now,” Steve Mashuda, the Seattle-based managing attorney for oceans at Earthjustice, said by telephone.

The San Francisco-based nonprofit is one of several environmental nonprofits that in December 2018 sued in a South Carolina federal court to stop the tests — twice as loud as a jet engine — sought from New Jersey’s Cape May to Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Though New York and New England were not included, the blasts are so powerful they travel thousands of miles. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and a number of other East Coast local, state and federal officials opposed them — the first step in the Trump administration’s initial plan to open the Atlantic Ocean to oil and gas firms.

“Our position has not changed,” a Cuomo spokesman, Jordan Levine, said by email.

Late last month, President Donald Trump said Virginia and North Carolina will be part of the 10-year moratorium on offshore drilling in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida he announced earlier that month.

In their lawsuit, the environmentalists said the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by permitting the five seismic testing firms to “to harm or harass” marine life.

While the lawsuit ground on, public support for drilling off the Eastern Seaboard waned or reversed, as local and state officials were convinced oil spills and scenery-wrecking rigs could threaten critical tourism and fishing industries.

The past few years of increasingly powerful storms have pushed coastal communities toward viewing rising seas as a grave danger burning fossil fuels will only worsen. Declining oil prices — down as by almost two-thirds by some measures from highs hit earlier this decade — also have sliced drillers’ interest.

Though wind turbines kill a half-million birds every year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates, because both the turbines and birds rely on the strong winds along migration routes, turbine developers do not need seismic tests to moor the turbines to the sea bed.

The seismic tests that were sought, which are used to find oil and gas deposits under the sea floor, were particularly hazardous because the firms were focused in some of the same areas, which greatly amplified the danger to marine life. “That overlap was one of the things that made this so harmful,” Mashuda said.

And he noted, the permits allowed behavioral harassment; the blasts could drive marine creatures from prime feeding areas and prevent highly social animals, including seals, dolphins and whales, from communicating with each other, which could — at a minimum — stop them from breeding or cooperating to find and capture schools of fish or thwart predators.

Just like dredgers, seismic air gun firms typically avoid winter’s rough seas and storms. After the firms recently admitted there was too little time to begin tests before the permits expire, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel of South Carolina on Monday issued what lawyers call a “Rubin Order,” explained Mike Mather, spokesman, Southern Environmental Law Center, a Charlottesville, Virginia-based nonprofit and one of the groups that sued.

“The Rubin Order also allows the case to be reopened if something changes in the next six weeks,” he said. However, the current permits cannot be renewed, “and the companies said we are not pursuing them right now.”

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