WASHINGTON (CN) – The Trump administration authorized the use of seismic air guns on Friday to find oil and gas formations deep underneath the Atlantic Ocean.
The National Marine Fisheries Service’s issuanced of the permits to five companies prompted outrage from critics who say the practice can injure whales, sea turtles and other marine life.
The seismic survey permits cover an area of the mid-Atlantic extending from Delaware to central Florida. The are part of President Donald Trump’s bid to dramatically expand offshore drilling in waters off the east and west coast as well as the Gulf of Mexico.
The plan has been roundly panned by lawmakers and others in coastal communities who say the seismic tests and any drilling activity that might some day follow would endangers the commercial fishing and tourism that serve as a basis for their local economies.
The permits approved Friday by the fisheries service are now subject to a final review by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. As it stands now, they allow for “incidental harassment” of whales and other marine life that are currently protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Seismic surveys are conducted by shooting sound waves are shot down to the sea floor. The waves reverberate and with the use of sensors, ocean engineers can determine where oil or natural gas deposits are likely to be.
During a conference call with reporters on Friday, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Director Donna Wieting said she didn’t know when the surveys will begin, but added that companeies are required to inform regulators before they start.
Benjamin Laws, a biologist with the agency, said the permits do come with some restrictions related to the migratory and breeding patterns of animals in the affected areas.
“We’ve carefully reviewed [the potential for impact on marine life] and have ensured that scientific information has been used to meet the requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” Weiting said. “When [the tests] are occurring over a very large scale, even if they were going on at the same time, there’s a low likelihood they would impact the same marine mammals or habitats at that time.”
Both Weiting and Laws noted that considerations for animals protected under the Endangered Species Act have also been factored into the decision to issue the permits.
The announcement sparked outrage from environmentalists on Friday.
Michael Jasny, the Natural Resource Defense Council’s marine mammal protection project director, lamented the administration’s decision.
“[This] is the first step in exploiting the ocean treasures we all own—all in a reckless quest for more fossil fuels that speed up climate change,” Jasny said.
The decision to issue the permits comes just one week after the devastating National Climate Assessment report was released and just two weeks after the National Marine Fisheries Service released its own data indicating a significant decline in the Atlantic right whale. The whale has seen its numbers reduced at record-breaking speeds in the last year – 20 died between 2016 and 2017.
It is believed that only 400 survive in the wild.
Laws assured reporters Friday that the Atlantic right whale’s calving period will be considered by those companies who have obtained the permits.
Former President Barack Obama also considered allowing seismic testing off the Atlantic coast, but eventually heeded warnings from scientists and environmentalists and, just weeks before he left office in January 2017, dropped the proposal.
But just six months later, President Donald Trump announced his intention to reopen Atlantic waters for seismic testing, and eventually, to oil and gas exploration.
In response to the Trump administration’s authorization of the permits, Oceana, an ocean conservation and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., announced the launch of a tool that will help the public monitor the seismic surveys.
According to Oceana’s campaign director Diane Hoskins, the free interactive map on their site gives users the opportunity to track apparent seismic vessels in near real-time off the East Coast.
“If these companies are allowed to begin seismic air gun blasting, our map gives the public near real-time access to the precise locations of vessels so that they know when, where and if these activities begin off our coast,” Hoskins said. “This interactive map is a powerful tool in the fight to protect Atlantic communities from offshore drilling.”