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Administration’s permits to harm marine animals during oil and gas exploration face a court fight

Numerous activist groups filed a federal lawsuit fighting seismic mapping, which could lead to drilling in the Atlantic for the first time in decades

A coalition of environmental groups is suing the Trump administration for granting permits to seismic-mapping companies that allow them to harass and harm marine animals while blasting deafening sounds under the Atlantic Ocean in search of oil and gas deposits.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in a federal court in Charleston, S.C., claims that the National Marine Fisheries Services, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration known as NOAA Fisheries, violated several federal laws that protect animals when it issued “incidental take” permits to five companies that submitted applications to carry out the seismic surveys.

“This action is unlawful, and we’re going to stop it,” said Diane Hoskins, campaign director at Oceana, a nonprofit group. “Seismic air gun blasting can harm everything from tiny zooplankton and fish to dolphins and whales. More than 90 percent of the coastal municipalities in the blast zone have publicly opposed seismic … blasting off their coast.”

The groups — the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Surfrider Foundation, Earthjustice and the Southern Environmental Law Center, among others — disagreed with an assessment by NOAA Fisheries that no animals would die as a result of the ear-piercing surveys. Dolphins and whales use echolocation to communicate and hunt, and some scientists say the blasts can damage their hearing.

“The Trump administration is letting the oil industry launch a brutal sonic assault on North Atlantic right whales and other marine life,” Kristen Monsell, ocean program legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Right whales will keep spiraling toward extinction if we don’t stop these deafening blasts and the drilling and spilling that could come next.”

Tuesday’s lawsuit is the latest volley in a war being waged across the Eastern Seaboard against the Trump administration’s ambition to offer federal offshore leases to the oil and gas industry and possibly drill in the Atlantic for the first time in about 50 years.

Every governor south of Maine has raised opposition to the proposal, part of a five-year federal offshore energy resource management plan. Nearly a dozen South Carolina lawmakers and mayors prepared to speak out against the seismic permits and reaffirm their opposition to oil exploration for a second time this year. On the West Coast, the governors of California, Oregon and Washington are aligned in opposition to a similar plan there.

But the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas industry lobby, stands behind the administration. “The U.S. needs to know what energy resources exist off of our shores and we are hopeful that permits for surveying for offshore oil and natural gas and a full national offshore leasing plan to explore and develop the outer continental shelf will move forward soon," it said in a statement.

Companies hoping to conduct the surveys are required to get a second permit from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, an arm of the Interior Department, before work can start.

The bureau has asserted in the past that there is no confirmed evidence that animals are harmed by seismic mapping and considers the threat “negligible.” But the bureau’s director under the Obama administration was concerned enough to deny permits for seismic surveys in January 2017.

“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, the director at the time.

The environmental coalition expressed confidence in its lawsuits because of past victories over powerful opponents. In 2015, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice took on the U.S. Navy over the use of sonar and bombs that stood to kill thousands of marine animals during war games off Hawaii.

A U.S. District Court judge in Hawaii ruled against the Navy and its claim that it couldn’t avoid sensitive whale habitat while conducting exercises in the national interest. The Navy planned to drop a quarter-million explosives in the Pacific and blast sonar for half a million hours during five years of war games.

NOAA Fisheries approved the Navy’s estimate that 155 marine mammals would die, 2,000 would suffer permanent injuries and there would be nearly 10 million instances of temporary hearing loss, disrupting hunting, mating and other behaviors.

The activists said the impact would be far greater, at least 11 times higher than previous kills during naval exercises. In ruling for the activists, the judge called the Navy’s dismissal of pleas to steer clear of whale and dolphin habitat “impractical.”