Conservation Groups Seek to Block Atlantic Seismic Activity

North Atlantic right whale
North Atlantic right whale

Published Feb 20, 2019 7:38 PM by The Maritime Executive

A group of conservation organizations have asked a federal judge to block the start of seismic airgun activities for offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean until the case can be fully heard in court.

The motion for a preliminary injunction filed in federal court in Charleston contends that the Trump administration’s approval for five companies seismic surveys violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Separately, 16 South Carolina coastal communities and the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce also filed a lawsuit to prevent seismic activity. That lawsuit has been merged with the one from the conservation groups. 

The filing asserts that:

•     Dolphins, whales and other animals could endure five million blasts.
•     The blasts will happen approximately every 10 seconds for weeks or months at a time.  
•     Seismic airguns create one of the loudest sources of noise in the oceans.
•     The government failed to consider the combined effects of overlapping and simultaneous surveys, which are greater than the effects of individual ones.
•     The government erroneously determined that only a “small number” of whales and dolphins would be harmed.
•     Should it go forward, this blasting will irreparably harm marine species, from tiny zooplankton to whales.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has authorized one company to harm more than 50,000 dolphins and another company to harm 20,000 more, says the filing, which also claims the blasts could irreparably harm the small population of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, a species on the verge of extinction. There are only about 400 right whales remaining in the Atlantic. Further, the filing asserts that ships would “concentrate their fire” on the world’s densest population of acoustically sensitive beaked whales off North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

The case number is 18-3326 in United States District Court for the District of South Carolina. The South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, North Carolina Coastal Federation, Oceana, One Hundred Miles, Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation are bringing the case. The Southern Environmental Law Center is representing South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, Defenders of Wildlife, North Carolina Coastal Federation, and One Hundred Miles. Earthjustice is representing Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation.

In January, a group of House Democrats each introduced a bill blocking offshore drilling in one or more regions of the U.S.

The efforts come as the Trump administration prepares to release the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) Proposed Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, which will define the administration’s vision for offshore oil and gas drilling. The Draft Proposed Program, released in January 2018, would have opened more than 90 percent of American waters to oil and gas development.

That version faced significant public opposition and pushback from a bipartisan coalition of governors, who asked then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for state-level drilling exemptions. BOEM’s upcoming Proposed Program is still expected to open some portions of the Atlantic, Pacific and Eastern Gulf of Mexico regions and some Alaskan waters to leasing.

However, the American Petroleum Institute released a statement in response last month, saying: “Closing the door on offshore development could hurt local economies, as well as America’s energy security, and is a step in the wrong direction.”

API President and CEO Mike Sommers addressed more than 400 government, labor and industry leaders on America’s economic leadership at API’s ninth annual State of American Energy address, saying: “Net oil imports this year are set to fall to their lowest levels since 1958. On some days, we actually export more oil than some OPEC nations produce. That’s a monumental shift in the global balance of energy power, and it’s paying off in communities across the nation – cutting family budgets and bringing manufacturing jobs back.”

Sommers released details of a poll on what Americans think about U.S. natural gas and oil. Key poll results:

• 84 percent support increased development of the country’s energy infrastructure
• 83 percent see natural gas and oil as important to the future.
• 78 percent of voters support increased production of natural gas and oil resources.
• 77 percent support energy policies that the natural gas and oil industry advocates: a secure supply of abundant, affordable and available energy.
• 75 percent support the role natural gas is playing in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
• 90 percent see personal value in natural gas and oil.