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Underwater seismic testing is unlikely to take place off Maryland’s coast anytime soon

Underwater seismic testing — a precursor to offshore oil drilling that environmental advocates worry disturbs marine wildlife— will not take place this year off the Atlantic Coast, according to an order from a federal judge issued Tuesday.

The testing, which was authorized in a 2017 executive order from President Donald Trump, was the subject of a lawsuit filed in South Carolina in 2018. Later, Maryland and eight other states along the East Coast joined on.

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The federal government had issued authorizations to five companies for the testing, but those companies still needed an additional permit from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management before they could begin. Those permits were never issued, and the federal government announced that the authorizations would expire Nov. 30.

All five companies told a federal judge that even if they received the necessary permit before the Nov. 30 expiration, they would not be able to begin testing in time. In a court order issued Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel dismissed the case, arguing that the deadline effectively rendered it moot.

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“The bottom line is that the seismic testing companies will not engage in seismic testing on the Outer Continental Shelf through November 30, 2020,” Gergel wrote.

After Nov. 30, the seismic testing companies must submit new applications and restart the full application process, “including public notice and a full public comment period,” in order to begin seismic testing, Gergel wrote.

That application process occurs in accordance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. The states, in tandem with environmental groups, initially challenged the federal government’s issuance of authorizations for the seismic testing on the grounds that it violated these acts, in addition to the Administrative Procedures Act.

The extensive use of noisy airguns along the coast would harm and kill endangered North Atlantic right whales, they argued.

“It’s continuous 160-decibel noise, and it goes on for months,” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said at a 2018 news conference at the National Aquarium in Baltimore announcing the state’s legal action.

“160 decibels under water is louder than a rock concert,” added National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli at the time.

Supporters of the testing argue that it’s a way to explore the ocean’s depths, and ensure that any future drilling would have minimal impact on the marine environment. They argue that the exploration is critical, in that it would help to secure U.S. energy independence and affordability.

In a statement Tuesday, Frosh cheered the outcome, declaring the seismic testing “dead in the water.”

“Time and time again, this Administration has placed the interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of our precious natural resources,” Frosh wrote. “If this administration attempts to move forward again, we will return to court to protect the health of the Chesapeake Bay and our vulnerable Atlantic Coast shoreline.”

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