Maryland officials join opposition to offshore seismic tests

Maryland officials have joined a host of congressmen in opposing the Trump administration’s plan to start underwater seismic testing along the Atlantic coast, operations that could lead to increased domestic production of oil and gas, but also could be harmful to marine animals.

The offshore seismic testing would be part of oil and gas exploration from Florida up the East Coast to Delaware, including the coast of Maryland.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh and eight other attorneys general joined as parties to a lawsuit aimed at stopping the testing, which they said would subject marine creatures such as whales, porpoises and dolphins to extremely loud sounds.

“While the [Trump] administration continues to place the interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of our precious natural resources, attorneys general up and down the Atlantic coast will continue to fight these and other efforts to open the waters off our shores to drilling for oil and gas,” Frosh said in a statement. “Our filing seeks to prevent any seismic testing going forward while our lawsuit is pending.”

Frosh’s coalition includes attorneys general from Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Virginia.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R), who called for President Trump to remove Maryland from the states involved in seismic testing, authorized the lawsuit against the federal government.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) also supports the suit against the administration.

“Seismic testing that blasts the ocean floor with high powered air guns threatens marine life, including commercial fisheries that are vital to the economy of Maryland’s coastal communities,” Van Hollen said in a statement to the Capital News Service. “That’s why I have repeatedly opposed proposals to allow this practice – and subsequent oil and gas drilling – off the Atlantic.”

The Trump administration’s plan was initially challenged by National Resources Defense Council, which said the testing violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Seismic testing includes underwater blasts that would occur approximately every 10 seconds for weeks or months at a time, the NRDC said. Right whales, a species that has seen its population dwindle to roughly 400 in the Atlantic, could be fatally harmed, according to the organization.

“Should [seismic testing] go forward, this blasting will irreparably harm marine species, from tiny zooplankton — the foundation of ocean life — to the great whales,” the NRDC said. “The National Marine Fisheries Service has authorized one company to harm more than 50,000 dolphins and another company to harm 20,000 more.”

The NFMS, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, gave clearance to these companies under the condition that there be guidelines to protect nearby marine life. Stipulations require acoustic monitoring in the area where seismic testing is being conducted as well as a crew of observers onboard to alert operators if a protected species comes within a certain distance.

“NOAA Fisheries is clear in the documentation related to [authorizations] that we do not expect mortality to occur as a result of these surveys,” said organization spokeswoman Katherine Brogan.

The agency also requires testing to be shut down when “certain sensitive species or groups are observed” in the area.

Michael Jasny, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project for the NRDC, told Capital News Service that the lawsuit is currently awaiting a decision from the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina.

While the administration and environmentalist groups wait for a decision on the lawsuit, seismic testing has yet to begin. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management hasn’t issued the necessary permits, but those permits could come out “any day,” according to Jasny.

If the BOEM issues permits to these companies, they would be required to give 30 days notice before beginning seismic testing. If the 30-day grace period passes and no decision is reached on the lawsuits, the companies would then have the green light to begin testing.

Five companies — ION Geophysical, Spectrum, TGS, WesternGeco and CGG – have received clearance from the Trump administration and now await permits from the BOEM, Jasny said.

Capital News Service is a student-staffed news wire and broadcast news service operated by the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism. © 2019 Capital News Service. All Rights Reserved.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up