Maryland leading challenge to Trump administration's decision allowing seismic testing off Atlantic coast

Maryland is leading a group of nine Atlantic states in challenging the Trump administration's decision to allow energy companies to conduct thundering underwater seismic tests off the coast.

The states are joining a lawsuit filed by environmental groups in South Carolina last week.


Attorney General Brian Frosh said the seismic testing permits violate federal laws protecting endangered species and the environment. The booming tests, which could go on for months, would disrupt if not “devastate” whales, dolphins and other creatures that use sound to hunt and interact with each other, Frosh said Thursday while announcing the legal action at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

Separately, Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration called on the federal government to remove Maryland’s waters from the section of coast that Trump reopened for energy exploration last year.


“We are deeply concerned about the individual and cumulative impacts to marine species and habitats that may result from geological and geophysical surveys,” Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton wrote in a letter to federal fisheries and energy officials Thursday.

The National Marine Fisheries Service approved permits last month for five companies to conduct seismic testing off the Atlantic coast. The permits are needed to allow “incidental harassment” of more than two dozen species including whales, dolphins, porpoises and sea turtles.

Opponents of the testing say it would do more than “harass” the animals — Frosh said major, constant seismic disruptions would be deadly. In the lawsuit, Frosh and the attorneys general of North Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine argue the federal government underestimates the impact the testing would have on marine wildlife, and also overestimates their populations in order to make any potential harms appear less significant.

“It’s continuous 160-decibel noise, and it goes on for months,” Frosh said.

“160 decibels under water is louder than a rock concert,” added National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli, who said he joins with Frosh and Belton in opposing offshore drilling.

The energy industry says the seismic surveys are one of many steps in a process to ensure that any future drilling would have minimal impact on the marine environment. It argues offshore resources need to be explored to ensure U.S. energy independence and affordability. Little is known about what resources may lie beneath the ocean floor because the area hasn’t been explored in decades.

Belton said the Hogan administration hopes to get the Trump administration to agree to remove Maryland waters from a zone the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has established for exploration, as it did with Florida’s coast. He said the agency is expected to update its five-year plan for energy exploration early in 2019, and has sought plenty of input from states who have expressed opposition to the idea of offshore drilling.

The bureau “constantly says they’re going to take states’ interests in mind when they make their final decisions,” Belton said. “If they don’t take that into consideration, then you’ve got to think they’re just not telling the truth from the beginning. If so many folks and interests think it’s a bad idea, why would we move forward with it?”


Frosh said it didn’t seem fair that Maryland’s waters are open for energy exploration when Florida’s aren’t.

“Maryland has everything that Florida’s got, except Mar-a-Lago,” he said, referring to the Palm Beach resort Trump owns.