Groups sue over seismic testing decision that could pave the way for Atlantic oil drilling

Offshore drilling opponents rallied at the Virginia Capitol in November. (Image via Oceana)

A coalition of environmental groups sued the federal government today over its decision late last month to permit seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean, a potential precursor to oil drilling.

“This extremely loud and dangerous process, which is used to search for oil and gas deposits deep below the ocean’s surface, is the first step toward offshore drilling,” the groups said in a statement.

“If allowed, seismic airgun blasting would harm marine life, including whales, dolphins, fish and zooplankton – the foundation of the ocean food web.”

President Donald Trump’s administration, in a reversal of President Barack Obama’s policy, has aggressively moved to open up the Atlantic for oil drilling. The testing permits allow five companies to conduct seismic airgun blasting in a vast expanse of water that stretches from Cape May, N.J., to Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The lawsuit was filed in South Carolina and takes aim at the so-called incidental harassment authorizations issued Nov. 30 by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The groups — including Oceana, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Southern Environmental Law Center, Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation — say the agency violated laws protecting marine mammals and endangered species as well as the National Environmental Policy Act.

“By NMFS’ own estimates, the authorized surveys will injure and disturb whales and dolphins hundreds of thousands of times, including critically endangered North Atlantic right whales,” the suit says.  “Ocean species are acutely sensitive to acoustic disturbance, which can disrupt or prevent these vital activities.”

Proponents of Atlantic oil drilling include former Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, also a former secretary of the Navy. Webb is co-chair of the American Petroleum Institute’s “Explore Offshore” coalition, which says expanding drilling to the Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico could reap billions in tax revenue for states.

“Energy independence requires long-term planning, and taking advantage of the resources at hand,” Webb said in a statement. “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.”

However, Oceana, a leading opponent of Atlantic offshore drilling, which business leaders and politicians up and down the Atlantic Seaboard have rejected, says the risks far outweigh any potential benefits.

“At current national consumption rates, the supply of undiscovered economically recoverable offshore oil and gas in the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coast of Florida would only meet domestic oil demand for roughly two years and gas demand for just over one year,” the group claims.

And a catastrophic spill like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster could create “enormous economic losses, human health impacts and disturbing effects on marine ecosystems,” Oceana notes. Fishing, tourism and recreation in the areas potentially being opened up for drilling in the Pacific, Atlantic and eastern Gulf account for about 2.6 million jobs and generate $180 billion in GDP, Oceana says.

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Robert Zullo
Robert has been winning and losing awards as a reporter and editor for 13 years at weekly and daily newspapers, beginning at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., where he was a staff writer and managing editor. He spent five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary.