Although President Donald Trump has expanded an offshore drilling moratorium to federal waters off North Carolina, conservation groups are concerned coastal environments could still be endangered by seismic testing.
The U.S. Department of Justice said in a court filing last week that moratoriums against drilling off of North Carolina and other Southeastern states do not prevent companies from conducting seismic testing, a method of mapping oil and natural gas deposits under the ocean floor by blasting loud noises from an array of air guns.. But in an interview with the News & Observer, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said he thinks the moratorium means there is “like zero” chance seismic testing will happen off of the North Carolina coast.
“The president’s action means that it’s extraordinarily unlikely, in my opinion, that there will ever be seismic done in these areas because the entire point of doing it for these companies — in order to want to sell it — is gone,” Bernhardt said.
Environmental groups disagree. Kristen Monsell, a spokeswoman for the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, said that even though the Atlantic seaboard was never opened to offshore drilling in the 2010s, several companies still submitted seismic testing applications to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
“I think that shows that oil and seismic companies will try to get into areas regardless of what’s open to leasing to do seismic to see what’s out there, and if they can find something, then push to have it open,” Monsell said.
The Center for Biological Diversity is one of many plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed in South Carolina trying to block the permitting of seismic testing, a lawsuit joined by N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein. The Department of Justice memo regarding seismic testing and the moratoriums was in response to that lawsuit.
Four companies have outstanding applications and incidental harm authorizations, allowing them to kill or ham wildlife as a side effect of the seismic activity. Another company, WesternGeco, withdrew its application earlier this year.
In a letter to N.C. Department of Environmental Quality officials, WesternGeco said its testing would have included blasting during roughly 208 days over a yearlong period, with sounds ranging from 225 to 260 decibels.
Oceana, an ocean conservancy group, is also a plaintiff in the South Carolina lawsuit. Diane Hoskins, a spokeswoman for Oceana’s advocacy partner, Oceana Action, said the moratorium’s protections do not go far enough.
“If the four companies pull their applications, that would be the level of certainty our coastal economies deserve,” Hoskins said, later adding, “This an investment in the future of offshore drilling that our states and coastal economies don’t want.”
North Carolina environmental officials have formally objected to seismic testing, saying the loud sounds could harm coastal activities such as fishing and tourism and are inconsistent with state coastal policies.
The U.S. Department of Commerce granted WesternGeco’s appeal to that state decision, and the matter is now the subject of a federal lawsuit. Although