Attorneys General Look to Bar Seismic Oil Tests in Atlantic

(Bloomberg) -- Attorneys general from nine coastal states are intervening in a lawsuit aimed at blocking seismic surveys that could help pinpoint oil under Atlantic waters but also imperil whales and dolphins.

The move brings the heft and resources of top state law enforcement officials to a fight over the future of oil and gas exploration along the U.S. East Coast.

“We’re protecting the interests of our states,” said Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh in an interview. “This is a precursor to offshore drilling. And the dangers of offshore drilling and the frivolity of it when you look at the consequences of climate change are stunning.”

The attorneys general from Maryland, New York and other states filed a document Thursday joining a lawsuit by environmentalists in a South Carolina-based federal district court challenging a decision that opens the door to seismic surveys along the East Coast. The suit takes aim at the National Marine Fisheries Service’s recent decision to issue authorizations that permit marine mammals to be disturbed by proposed seismic surveys mapping potential oil reserves in Atlantic waters from Delaware to central Florida.

Animal Harassment

The five companies seeking to conduct the geological surveys -- including TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Co. ASA, Schlumberger Ltd. subsidiary WesternGeco Ltd., and a unit of ION Geophysical Corp. -- still must win individual permits from the Interior Department to conduct the work.

But the attorneys general argue that the fisheries service wrongly lifted a major barrier to the activity when it issued the animal harassment authorizations and concluded that the tests would have only a “negligible impact” on marine mammals. The opponents say the agency ran afoul of federal laws that bar the harassment, harming or killing of certain species without specific authorization.

“The consequences will be catastrophic for marine mammals,” Frosh said, arguing that the agency acted arbitrarily in considering each company’s proposed activities in isolation.

Endangered Whales

The challengers argue the 34 species of marine mammals -- including five endangered and threatened whale populations -- could be harmed by the surveys, which are conducted by vessels towing compressed air guns that emit periodic blasts. When the resulting sound waves penetrate the sea floor and bounce back, they can help map underground geological features, including potential oil and gas reservoirs.

Environmentalists argue the loud blasts can cause long-lasting damage to marine mammals by jeopardizing their hearing and disrupting vital behaviors such as mating and feeding.

But advocates say similar surveys are conducted around the world -- both to help find oil and to aid companies in deciding where to install offshore wind turbines -- with no scientific data indicating adverse effects to marine life.

Because existing seismic information from the region is decades old and the information is so valuable in guiding energy companies’ decisions about where to drill, it’s seen as an essential step toward energy development along the coast.

Fishing Industry

“Approving these blasting tests paves the way for the Trump administration to open up the entire Atlantic coast to drilling and poses a severe threat to our coastal communities, our fishing industry, and the health of the ocean,” said Maura Healey, the attorney general of Massachusetts, one of the states seeking to get involved in the case.

The Trump administration is considering selling oil and gas leases in the Atlantic for the first time in decades, despite opposition from coastal leaders.

“Almost every single one of those states is pretty adamant about not wanting that activity off their shore,” said Elizabeth Klein, deputy director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at NYU School of Law. “The administration is pushing through the industry agenda on expanded oil and gas leasing despite all evidence that other stakeholders have other viewpoints about the appropriateness and the scope of that activity.”

In moving to intervene on the side of the environmental and conservation groups, the attorneys general are seeking to file their own complaint on behalf of their respective states.  Besides Maryland, Massachusetts and New York, the states seeking to intervene in the case are Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia.

The case is South Carolina Coastal Conservation League v. Ross, 2:18-cv-03326, U.S. District Court, District of South Carolina (Charleston).

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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