Concerned about harm to sea life, DEQ temporarily blocks energy companies from seismic air gun testing off NC coast

The four international companies are in the final approval process for oil and gas development off the NC Coast. However, state environmental officials have reviewed the applications and asked for more information. (Graphic: DEQ)

New science about the hazards of seismic air gun testing could waylay plans of four international companies that had planned to explore and drill for oil and gas off the North Carolina coast.

As part of its consistency review, the state Division of Coastal Management late last week asked the companies for more information about the impacts of exploration and drilling, because they failed to include the most recent scientific data about the harm of seismic airgun tests on marine life.

These tests use compressed air to generate pulses of sound — excruciatingly loud sound, 250 decibels — every 10 to 15 seconds for months at a time. For whales, dolphins and sea turtles, who communicate by sound, this noisy environment is akin to people trying to converse — say, hold a business meeting, read to their children, call the fire department — over the roar of a jet engine 100 feet away.

Aquatic life throughout the food chain — from whales to fish to plankton — are stressed by the noise. They can no longer easily navigate or communicate by natural sound; the stress also reduces breeding and can even kill marine life.

“Based on the new studies, the state believes the activities you have proposed will have coastal effects substantially different than originally described,” the letter, signed by Coastal Management Director Braxton Davis, read, “and may severely impact the biological, social and economic value” of the state’s recreational and commercial fisheries.

As Policy Watch reported earlier this summer, coastal residents and environmental groups overwhelmingly oppose seismic testing and offshore drilling because of the potential damage to sea life, tourism, the fishing industry and the environment. Gov. Roy Cooper and Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan submitted comments to the Bureau of Ocean Management opposing the plan for North Carolina.

Erin Carey, the NC Sierra Club’s coastal coordinator, spoke against the testing and drilling plans during the summer meetings. She commended DEQ for its recent decision, “prioritizing scientific study and peer review when considering the health and welfare of our precious marine fisheries and the coastal economies that depend on them.”

The mid-Atlantic area of the Outer Continental Shelf has been off-limits to energy exploration and drilling; the Obama administration had excluded the region from its 2017–2022 leasing plan. However, in April, President Trump issued an executive order opening the area to leasing.

Although the Bureau of Ocean Management issues federal drilling permits and leasing agreements, consistency review is a critical state power used to review drilling proposals for areas within its administrative boundaries. The state used a consistency review  in the 1980s to thwart Mobil’s attempts to drill at the Point, an environmentally rich area of the Outer Banks.

In 2015, the state reviewed four consistency determinations and issued consistency concurrences to Spectrum Geo, Inc, GX Technology, MCNV Marine North America and TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Company for seismic surveying in the Atlantic Ocean related to the identification of oil and gas resources off the North Carolina coast. Although all the companies have offices in Houston, they work internationally.


NCCM Letters by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

One Comment

  1. richard manyes

    January 2, 2018 at 7:37 am

    Didn’t this whole thing come up a couple of years ago? I thought these seismic studies were essentially the same as the ones done by academic researchers under the National Science Foundation. There was one study showing an adverse impact to fish but if you read it, it put fish in cages and forced them to stay in a stationary position as the air gun went by. I thought, quite plausibly, that critics of the study said it was unrealistic since fish will swim away as the tug-boat dragging the air gun chugs towards them. Is that not correct?

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