The Trump administration on Friday authorized use of seismic air guns to find oil and gas formations deep underneath the Atlantic Ocean floor, reversing Obama administration policies and drawing outrage from critics who say the practice can disturb or injure whales, sea turtles and other marine life.
The National Marine Fisheries Service said it has authorized permits for five companies to conduct surveys from Delaware to central Florida.
The surveys are part of President Donald Trump's bid to expand offshore drilling in the Atlantic, a plan that has drawn opposition from East Coast lawmakers and governors, including in Maryland, for possible harms to commercial fishing and tourism.
Earlier this year, Gov. Larry Hogan asked the Trump administration to remove Maryland waters from possible drilling sites, and the General Assembly passed a law imposing strict liability standards for any future spills from offshore drilling.
“The Trump Administration’s grant of these authorizations is misguided and unlawful,” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said in a statement. “In opening the door to harassment of tens of thousands of marine mammals, including endangered species, the administration has again placed the interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of our irreplaceable natural resources. We will continue to fight these and other efforts to open the waters off our coast to offshore drilling for oil and gas.”
Maryland environmental groups said Friday that they are concerned the tests are a sign the Trump administration is moving closer toward allowing energy production off the East Coast.
“Allowing seismic blasting off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia is an unacceptable step towards drilling for oil and gas,” said Lisa Feldt, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s vice president for environmental protection and restoration. “Offshore drilling in our region would pose far too many risks to the health of coastal waters and the Chesapeake Bay, fishing, aquaculture, tourism, and all jobs that depend on clean water.”
Seismic surveys have not been conducted in the region for at least 30 years.
Administration officials said that under the terms of a federal law that protects marine life, the permits would allow “incidental harassment” of whales, dolphins and sea turtles but would not allow companies to kill them. The coastline is a busy migratory path for dolphins, hundreds of which have been appearing in the Chesapeake Bay this year, and for right and humpback whales.
Survey vessels will be required to have observers on board to listen and watch for marine life and alert operators if a protected species comes within a certain distance, officials said, and acoustic monitoring will be used to detect those swimming beneath the ocean surface.
Surveys will be shut down when certain sensitive species or groups are observed and penalties can be imposed for vessels that strike marine animals, officials said.
None of those precautions were enough for environmental groups and East Coast lawmakers who decried the surveys as cruel and unnecessary. The Trump administration's call for offshore drilling has generated widespread, bipartisan opposition from states up and down the Atlantic Seaboard.
"Seismic testing risks injuring and killing critically endangered species, severely disrupting economically important fisheries and threatening the Jersey shore," said Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat who is set to lead the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee in January.
Pallone called an environmentally sound coast critical to New Jersey's economy and said lawmakers from both parties "will work tirelessly to fight this reckless decision by the Trump administration."
Diane Hoskins, campaign director at the environmental group Oceana, said approval of the seismic surveys "flies in the face of massive opposition to offshore drilling and exploration from over 90 percent of coastal municipalities in the proposed blast zone."
The Obama administration rejected the permits because of the known harm seismic air gun blasting causes, she said.
"President Trump is essentially giving these companies permission to harass, harm and possibly even kill marine life, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale — all in the pursuit of dirty and dangerous offshore oil," said Hoskins, vowing ongoing opposition.
The American Petroleum Institute, the largest lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, hailed the administration's action and said seismic surveys are just "one of many steps along a rigorous permitting process" that helps to ensure that any future drilling in the Mid- and South Atlantic would be properly managed and conducted to have minimal impact on the marine environment.
The surveys are needed to ensure oil and gas companies "can make the discoveries of resources that our economy will need for decades to come," the group said in a statement.
Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance and the Associated Press contributed to this article.