Trump said to advance seismic surveys in Atlantic


WASHINGTON D.C. (Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration is taking a major step toward allowing a first-in-a-generation seismic search for oil and gas under Atlantic waters, despite hard-line environmental protests that the geological tests involve loud air gun blasts that might harm whales, dolphins and other animals.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (a part of the Department of Commerce) is set to issue “incidental harassment authorizations”—allowing seismic surveys proposed by five companies—that permits them to disturb marine mammals that are otherwise protected by federal law, according to three people familiar with the activity, who asked not to be named before a formal announcement.

The firms, including TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Asa and Schlumberger subsidiary WesternGeco Ltd., still must win individual permits from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) before they can conduct the work. However, those are widely expected under President Trump, who has made “energy dominance” a signature goal.

The seismic surveys to identify oil and gas reserves would be conducted in Atlantic Ocean waters along the U.S. East Coast, from Delaware down to central Florida. Conservationists complain that air gun blasts are going to be harmful to marine animals. However, the harassment authorizations are expected to lay out steps that the geophysical companies must take to mitigate damage to animals, including limitations blocking surveys during the calving season for the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale

Industry supporters stress that similar seismic surveys are already being conducted for scientific research, and they also help find sites for wind turbines off the East Coast. They argue that despite extensive use, there has been no documented decline in marine mammal populations from the work. And, they note that when used to identify potential oil and gas resources, seismic surveys can help energy companies better target later drilling and decrease the odds of dry holes.

“These activities are exploration activities,” said Nikki Martin, president of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors. “The assessment of the resource is critical; it’s critical knowledge for the states and critical knowledge for the federal government in determining future decisions regarding offshore exploration and development.”

It has been decades since the last seismic surveys for oil and gas along the East Coast—and those only touched a sliver of the territory that the Trump administration is considering for energy development. The Interior Department is developing a proposal for selling offshore drilling rights over the next five years, after putting almost all U.S. coastal waters—including the Atlantic—on the table for leasing in a draft plan last January.

If ultimately approved, the seismic surveys would mark another Trump administration reversal of an Obama-era decision, as a means of prioritizing domestic energy development.

The Obama administration denied pending seismic applications in January 2017. But Trump sought to streamline government permitting of seismic surveys in an April 2017 executive order. And within days, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had issued an order resuming evaluation of the seismic permit applications that had been rejected.

The other companies winning incidental harassment authorizations are CGG Services US, Spectrum Geo and a unit of ION Geophysical.

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