The Trump administration is preparing to take an important step toward future oil and natural gas drilling off the Atlantic shore, approving five requests from companies to conduct deafening seismic tests that could harm tens of thousands of dolphins, whales and other marine animals.
The planned Friday announcement by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the Commerce Department, to issue "incidental take" permits allowing companies to harm wildlife is likely to further antagonize a dozen governors in states on the Eastern Seaboard who strongly oppose the administration's proposal to expand federal oil and gas leases to the Atlantic. Federal leases could lead to exploratory drilling for the first time in more than half a century.
In addition to harming sea life, acoustic tests — in which boats tugging rods pressurized for sound emit jet-engine-like booms 10 to 12 seconds apart for days and sometimes months — can disrupt thriving commercial fisheries. Governors, state lawmakers and attorneys general along the Atlantic coast say drilling threatens beach tourism that has flourished on the coast in the absence of oil production.
Seismic testing maps the ocean floor and estimates the whereabouts of oil and gas, but only exploratory drilling can confirm their presence. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that soiled the Gulf of Mexico resulted from an exploratory drill. Another gulf disaster that looms almost as large has spewed oil for more than 14 years. The Taylor Energy Co. spill of up to an estimated 700 barrels a day started when a hurricane ripped up production wells, and could continue for the rest of the century, according to the Interior Department.
The fisheries service announcement comes just a week after the Trump administration released a new report by the U.S. Geological Survey showing that excavating and burning fossil fuels from federal land comprised nearly a fourth of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States over a decade ending in 2014.
On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the administration published a much larger report by 13 federal agencies projecting the severe economic costs of climate change as coastal flooding and wildfires worsen, and hurricanes become more severe. After the administration's critics accused it of trying to bury the report with a release on Black Friday, President Trump dismissed it out of hand.
"One of the problems that a lot of people like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence but we're not necessarily such believers," Trump said during a freewheeling 20-minute interview with Washington Post reporters.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, who will probably take over as chair in the next Congress, blasted the administration's decision to permit acoustic testing as "an alarming sign of [its] indifference to the fate of coastal communities and marine life, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale."
He bemoaned the timing of the announcement shortly after the climate report's release, saying, "There is nothing this administration won't do for the fossil fuel industry, including destroying local economies and ruining endangered species habitats."
According to one model prediction in a 2014 study released by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, nearly 2.5 million dolphins would be harassed or possibly killed by acoustic sound blasts each year in the middle and southern Atlantic, and nearly half a million pilot whales would be impacted.
Fewer than two weeks ago, the National Marine Fisheries Service pleaded with commercial fishermen to be careful not to harm Atlantic right whales after an unprecedented 20 deaths in 2016 and 2017 reduced their numbers to a mere 400 in the wild.
"We are very concerned about the future of North Atlantic right whales," Barb Zoodsma, right whale biologist for NOAA Fisheries, said in a Nov. 15 statement. "We lost 20 right whales in U.S. and Canadian waters since 2017 during an Unusual Mortality Event. The number of right whale deaths is troubling for a population of a little more than 400 animals, particularly because we estimate that there are only about 100 breeding females who are producing fewer calves each year."
The Obama administration denied six permits for seismic testing weeks before Trump took office in 2017 out of concern for wildlife and fisheries. "In the present circumstances and guided by an abundance of caution, we believe that the value of obtaining the geophysical and geological information from new air-gun seismic surveys in the Atlantic does not outweigh the potential risks of those surveys' acoustic pulse impacts on marine life," said Abigail Ross Hopper, BOEM's director at the time.
Shortly after that decision, the American Petroleum Institute condemned it as wrongheaded, saying it would increase energy costs for consumers and shut the door to job creation. The institute, a lobby for the oil and gas industry, pinned its fortunes on the incoming president.
"We are hopeful the incoming administration will reverse this shortsighted course and base its decisions on facts so that we can have a forward-looking energy policy to help keep energy affordable for American consumers and business, create jobs and strengthen our national security," spokesman Eric Wohlschlegel said at the time.
Numerous conservationist groups have commented in emailed statements.
"This action flies in the face of massive opposition to offshore drilling and exploration from over 90 percent of the coastal communities in the proposed blast zone," said Diane Hoskins, campaign director at Oceana, a nonprofit group. "President Trump is essentially giving these companies permission to harass, harm and possibly even kill marine life."
The Natural Resources Defense Council echoed Grijalva's observation. "Just one week after issuing dire warnings on the catastrophic fallout of climate change . . . the Trump administration is opening our coastlines to for-profit companies to prospect for oil and gas — and is willing to sacrifice marine life, our coastal communities and fisheries in the process," said Michael Jasny, director of the group's Marine Mammal Protection Project.