The Trump administration has approved a first step toward offshore oil and gas drilling on the Atlantic coast.
The National Marine Fisheries Service issued permits Friday for five private companies to conduct offshore seismic tests from New Jersey to Florida.
The tests fire acoustic pulses into the sea floor in search of oil and gas deposits.
Such tests haven’t occurred in the Atlantic as part of hydrocarbon exploration since around the 1980s, according to federal officials, though academic seismic tests have happened more recently.
These permits, which were denied under the Obama administration in 2017, will allow the companies to disturb protected marine mammals during their surveys.
Michael Jasny is an ocean noise pollution lawyer who directs the marine mammal protection project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He says despite some restrictions included in the permits, they’ll still threaten endangered species like the North Atlantic right whale.
The whales’ declining population recently dropped below 500 worldwide. They migrate south from New England to have their babies.
Jasny says seismic pulses can travel long distances, confusing the whales and drowning out their calls to their calves, which may die if they become separated from their mothers.
“Unfortunately, much of the right whales' habitat is right in the crosshairs of the seismic blasting that's been authorized today,” Jasny says.
Another nonprofit, Oceana, says they'll track the seismic testing, which could take place any time over the next year over a large area.
Environmental groups see the seismic surveys as a clear precursor to future Atlantic drilling activity – which residents and political leaders from almost every east coast state, including New Hampshire, have opposed.
“More than right whales, today's decision is about our coastal economies, the sustainability of our fisheries, the health of our oceans,” Jasny says.
Federal officials say the permits are limited to the mid- and southern Atlantic because that’s where companies applied to conduct seismic exploration. It leaves open the possibility of future seismic testing in the North Atlantic, as well as other drilling activity across the region.
The new permits come over the objections of New Hampshire U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who is co-sponsoring a bill that would ban such surveys in the Atlantic.
“The Trump Administration is laying the groundwork for an environmental disaster on New Hampshire’s Seacoast,” she says in a statement. “The environmental impact of this decision would be catastrophic, further depleting the whale population and many other species that we cherish and are important to our economy.”
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management would have to approve any further oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic.
It estimates the Atlantic continental shelf holds about 3 percent of the nation's economically viable oil and gas reserves, though the region has never had commercial fossil fuel discoveries or drilling leases.