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Federal permits to allow Atlantic seismic testing, a preparatory step for future offshore drilling possibly off the coast of Virginia, were issued Friday despite widespread opposition from environmental groups, localities and other states along the east coast.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, approved incidental harassment authorizations for five companies to conduct seismic air gun testing in the Atlantic Ocean from Delaware to Florida. 

The same authorizations were considered in 2016, but weren’t granted because of a swell of opposition. 

“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 Oceana, an international ocean conservation organization.

“This is the first step toward offshore drilling in the Atlantic and we’re going to make sure coastal communities know what’s happening and fight this.”

Before offshore drilling can begin, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has to issue permits for the activity and its final leasing plan, which environmental groups expect to come soon.

The seismic authorizations give oil companies permission to harm some sea animals during air gun testing, which blasts noise as loud as a jet taking off to the ocean floor to identify where oil and gas could be.

In January 2017, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management concluded 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.”

The authorizations from the National Marine Fisheries Service require certain mitigation practices, including acoustic monitoring to detect marine mammal vocalizations, a gradual increase in seismic activity to alert nearby animals and required shutdowns when sensitive species are observed.

Seismic air gun testing can make some animals, like dolphins and whales, deaf, or displace them from their natural habitat. Advocates also say animals can die from the testing.

“The administration released a really critical climate report … and then released seismic testing permits,” said Laura Wood Habr, co-founder of the multi-state Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Cost and restaurant owner in Virginia Beach.”I don’t think that’s the right direction to go in to garner more fossil fuels.”

The world depends on oil and gas and that appears to be a trend that will continue, said Miles Morin, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council.

“This is a fuel that we can’t do without and it’s a fuel we’re going to need for decades into the future,” he said. “In order to maintain that supply, we need to continue to open up places for exploration.”

The last available seismic information for the Virginia coast was done in the 1980s, Morin said, and the mid-Atlantic seemed like a favorable place for drilling based on that information. It’s not clear if that’s still the case.

“It doesn’t make sense to say we shouldn’t explore offshore if we don’t know what opportunity is out there,” he said.

Impact on Virginia industry

Seismic testing and offshore drilling could impact key industries along the coast that communities rely on, environmental advocates said.

“Virginia Beach tourism relies on clean oceans to bring in tourists and provide the delicious, high-quality seafood we are known for serving,” Habr said in a statement. “Seismic air gun blasting will undoubtedly harm the unique Atlantic fisheries coastal restaurants and seafood industry depend on.”

Any loss of marine animals affects the entire ocean food chain, Habr said, including oysters, which are a key indicator of waterway restoration.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has a different take on air gun testing and in 2014 said there has been “no documented scientific evidence of noise from air guns … adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities.”

In some cases, the bureau noted, bottlenose dolphins were observed swimming toward survey vessels and riding in the waves around it. Some whales, however, seemed to move away from the vessel, indicating they didn’t like the sound.

Offshore drilling opponents rallied at the Virginia Capitol earlier this month. (Image via Oceana)

Twenty localities in Hampton Roads, the Northern Neck and Eastern Shore have adopted formal resolutions opposing offshore drilling, with the town of Montross doing so earlier this week, said Terra Pascarosa, the Virginia organizer for Oceana. Oceana will be tracking the activity of seismic vessels.

Roughly 3,000 fishermen work in Virginia, a 2018 Virginia Beach City Council resolution opposing offshore drilling and seismic testing stated. Those people make “significant contributions to the state and the city’s economic vitality, and an offshore energy exploration catastrophe could devastate their industry.”

Virginia Beach’s tourism industry, which brings in $1.4 billion a year for the city, would be endangered if there was an accident related to offshore drilling too, the council resolution stated. The activity could get in the way of military operations in the area, including Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base.

Oceana estimates 46,000 jobs could be lost along the Virginia coast if there was an offshore drilling accident, Pascarosa said.

“There’s a giant risk with little reward,” she said.

Morin said a potential offshore drilling industry could create 25,000 high-paying jobs in Hampton Roads that wouldn’t require a college degree. He likened the possible future industry to the recently sealed Amazon deal in Northern Virginia.

He did acknowledge that in the short-term, an offshore drilling industry may not employ many Virginians as programs are created to funnel people in the business.

“But there will be a ramp-up,” he said. “As any industry grows, it takes some time to grow domestically.”

Widespread opposition along the coast

The Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast cited concerns from business leaders and environmental organizations in North Carolina, South Carolina, New Jersey and the Northeast.

“Permitting seismic blasting in the South Atlantic is completely out of touch with Southeast communities, business leaders and elected officials who have consistently and overwhelmingly rejected offshore drilling and the seismic blasting that precedes it,” said Catherine Wannamaker, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“Seismic surveys not only pave the way for offshore drilling that no one wants here, but they also endanger whales, dolphins, and fisheries and threaten coastal economies. 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.”

Democratic U.S. Congressman Don Beyer, VA-8, said if President Donald Trump is going to ignore opposition to seismic testing and offshore drilling, Congress should take it up by passing his bill that would put a moratorium on both activities in the Atlantic Ocean.

“Seismic blasting and offshore drilling pose a threat to marine life and the coastal economies which depend on them,” Beyer said in a statement. “There is no justification for intentionally welcoming this kind of damage, particularly at a time when oil prices are low and fossil fuel corporations are posting record profits.”