Conservation groups fighting the Trump administration’s bid to open the Atlantic Ocean to offshore drilling asked a federal court Wednesday to block companies from conducting seismic tests to determine the location of oil and gas deposits.
Five companies are awaiting the approval of final government permits allowing them to start what the environmentalists call “ear piercing” tests that can be disruptive to marine life, particularly mammals such as whales and dolphins that use echolocation to communicate and feed.
Claiming the issuance of those permits is imminent, as soon as March 1, the groups asked a judge in South Carolina to issue an injunction that would bar seismic testing until a lawsuit they filed against the administration in December can be decided.
The December lawsuit claims the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the Commerce Department, departed from its mission to protect marine life by issuing permits allowing the five companies to kill fish and mammals as they conduct the tests. The service, also known as NOAA Fisheries, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the permits are a procedural step and that it does not expect any animals to be harmed.
According to the lawsuit, which relies on scientific studies, “at least 34 marine mammal species” swim in the area where testing would be allowed, south of New Jersey to Florida. They include the North Atlantic right whale, an imperiled species with about 400 remaining and about 100 breeding couples. Births are few, but 20 of the whales have died since April 2017, which marine scientists, like the lawsuit, called an unprecedented number.
“Coastal waters from South Carolina to Florida provide the species’ only known calving grounds, and much of its migratory route lies within the survey area,” the lawsuit says.
When the first permits were approved in November, a spokeswoman, Katherine Brogan, said “NOAA Fisheries is clear in the documentation . . . that we do not expect mortality to occur as a result of these [seismic] surveys.”
Nevertheless, nine state attorneys general from Maine to South Carolina joined the lawsuit. The administration’s proposal, under a federally required five-year offshore leasing plan, could lead to drilling off the Eastern Seaboard for the first time in decades.
“While the 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 waters off our shores to drilling for oil and gas,” Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) said in a statement.
NOAA and the energy management bureau did not immediately respond to a request to comment about the injunction.
It is up to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a division of the Interior Department that oversees federal offshore leasing and drilling, to approve or deny permits allowing the companies to venture into the ocean.
The permits were considered important enough for President Trump’s “American energy dominance” agenda that workers were paid during the partial government shutdown to continue processing them. A director at the bureau, Walter Cruickshank, said in court proceedings that “permits may issue as soon as March 1, 2019,” according to the motion. A 30-day notice period would follow, meaning seismic activity could begin in early April.
“The harm Plaintiffs seek to prevent will begin as soon as seismic blasting does,” the request for an injunction said.