The Trump administration yesterday opened a path to drill for oil and gas off the Atlantic coast, a step conservationists thought they had blocked last year.
In a notice to be published today, the National Fisheries Service is proposing five permits to allow companies to conduct seismic surveys with air guns, a technology used to explore for oil and gas.
The use of the air guns, devices that set off blasts as loud as dynamite to survey coastal sediments, has long been opposed by environmental groups who argue it can deafen and harm whales and marine wildlife.
The action by the administration follows an executive order earlier this spring by President Donald Trump, reversing a decision by the Obama administration to block drilling in the Atlantic and Arctic oceans.
“This is the gateway to drilling,’’ said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, referring to the move to allow seismic surveys with the air guns. “It sets the stage for oil and gas drilling.’’
Michael Jasny, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed. “It’s a license for energy companies — in their relentless drive for more fossil fuels — to devastate marine wildlife. Scientists warn that seismic activity alone could drive the endangered North Atlantic right whale to extinction,’’ he said.
The National Marine Fisheries Service proposes to issue five permits known as Incidental Harm Authorizations, allowing seismic testing for a one-year period. The public has 30 days to comment on the proposals.
Seismic testing has been done off the coast of New Jersey in the past. Two years ago, the fisheries service approved some testing in a study of rising sea levels and climate change conducted by Rutgers University of ocean sediments off Barnegat Bay.
In addition to sparking oppositions from conservationists, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection unsuccessfully challenged the study in court and the testing went ahead. Results have yet to be released, according to Zipf.
The latest announcement by the Trump administration raises the question whether Gov. Chris Christie will once again oppose the testing as he did under the Obama administration.
“President Trump has taken his first major step to allow offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean by opening up our coast to seismic testing,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Seismic testing harasses marine animals with loud blasts, but can even lead to mass strandings and possible death.’’
Since Trump’s announcement earlier this year, New Jersey’s two U.S. Senators, Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, introduced legislation to ban seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean, but the measure is unlikely to be moved forward in the Republican-controlled Congress.
For years, opposition to potential oil and gas drilling off the Jersey coast has mostly been a bipartisan issue, fought by Republican and Democratic governors who fear the damage it could cause to the state’s $40 billion a year tourism industry.