January 6th, 2017 (Jim Waymer). MELBOURNE, Fla. — Federal regulators have denied six pending permits for using high-powered airguns to scan the ocean floor for signs of oil and gas deposits from Florida to Delaware.
The permits were no longer needed because the federal government removed those waters from the list of areas available to be leased for oil and gas exploration between 2017 and 2022, according to a release Friday from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Environmental groups touted the decision as a major victory for coastal habitats and future tourism, while industry officials said it would hamper America’s energy independence, scientific knowledge and jobs.
“Horrific,” David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, a division of the American Petroleum Institute, said of the decision. “This agency has stated over and over again — even under this administration — how safe and efficient and how scientifically proven geological science is to do this. So I see it as a horrific political example that’s only the latest in disregarding American energy security needs.
The use of airgun seismic surveys would have generated maps or models of rock distributions and other geological structures to show potential for oil and gas deposits. But conservation groups worried that the seismic testing could harm marine life, especially endangered North Atlantic right whales.
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“That really put our right whales at risk,” said Amy Tidd of Rockledge, who organized anti-oil-drilling rallies at Florida beaches. “We need to protect our marine mammals. I think this is a great step toward protecting them and protecting our beaches.”
BOEM officials said it’s unlikely the information from seismic airgun surveys would be used if the federal government does not offer the Atlantic for future oil and gas leasing. The agency also pointed out that even if the area is opened to drilling in the future, the information gathered would become outdated.
The deep-penetration seismic surveys are conducted by vessels that tow an array of airguns that emit acoustic energy pulses into the seafloor over large areas and long periods of time, according to BOEM. The airguns penetrate several thousand meters beneath the seafloor.
Conservation groups worry the airguns could harm whales, dolphins and other marine life.
“Numerous studies demonstrate the negative impacts that seismic airgun noise has on ocean ecosystems, including reduced catch rates of commercially valuable fish and silencing bowhead whales,” the nonprofit group Oceana said in a press release. “The government’s own estimates state that seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic could injure as many as 138,000 marine mammals like dolphins and whales, while disturbing the vital activities of millions more.”
Shallow-depth surveys for other purposes typically don’t use airguns. While surveys may have some impacts to marine life, airgun seismic surveys have the potential for greater impacts, BOEM officials said.
More than 120 East Coast municipalities, 1,200 elected officials, 35,000 businesses and 500,000 fishing families have publicly opposed offshore drilling and/or seismic airgun blasting, according to Oceana, which has fought against the seismic testing.
Cocoa Beach was one of the cities that passed resolutions against seismic airgun testing.
“We’re pretty happy,” Cocoa Beach Mayor Ben Malik said of Friday’s decision. “We’re pretty sensitive to our coast and making sure it’s preserved for future generations.”
The pending permits from oil or gas exploration spanned from Delaware to Florida.
Earlier this month, Obama declared certain federal waters of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans off-limits to offshore oil and gas drilling — for good.
The ban does not include Atlantic waters off Florida and would not affect current oil and gas leases, but it aims to stop indefinitely the sale of new leases in an area of the Atlantic stretching from about Rhode Island to southern Maryland — and in the Arctic’s Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska.
Obama designated 31 Atlantic canyons along the Continental Shelf off limits to oil and gas exploration and development “due to their critical and irreplaceable ecological value.” The withdrawn area totals 5,990 square miles (or 3.8 million acres). The measure would protect deep-sea coral, fish habitat and other marine life, administration officials said.
API Director of Upstream and Industry Operations Erik Milito said Friday’s decision harms the nation’s energy security, scientific research and was politically driven.
“We are hopeful the incoming administration will reverse this short-sighted course,” Milito said in a prepared statement, “and base its decisions on facts so that we can have a forward-looking energy policy to help keep energy affordable for American consumers and businesses, help create jobs, and strengthen our national security.”
Tidd said the airgun permit denials are also a victory for Florida’s economy.
“Our economy depends on clean beaches. and to do anything that puts that at risk is foolhardy,” she said.