WesternGeco withdraws seismic testing application, but NC coast still vulnerable to offshore drilling

The area off the North Carolina coast that would be open to offshore seismic testing and oil and gas drilling.

WesternGeco has withdrawn its application to conduct underwater seismic testing for the oil and gas industries off the coast of North Carolina. But without a federal moratorium on the testing and drilling, these waters and the coast remain at risk.

The company notified the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management of its withdrawal on Sept. 4. BOEM had not yet ruled on the application.

WesternGeco had planned to shoot air guns  every 10 seconds, 208 days a year, at 225 to 260 decibels — louder than a rocket launch — from 19 miles offshore from the coast of Maryland, past North Carolina and further down the East Coast to 50 miles offshore of St. Augustine, Fla.

Even though the company would be using air guns outside of North Carolina’s jurisdictional boundary, the sound and shock waves travel for miles. Fish and other aquatic life often swim farther at sea and then return to the North Carolina coast, its bays and estuaries. Scientists have concluded that the seismic testing could harm the sea life that makes North Carolina its home base.

It’s unclear with prompted the withdrawal. The Trump administration had lifted a long-term moratorium on drilling and testing along the Southeast Coast. But earlier this week, the administration reversed itself, and again banned offshore drilling along the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

However, in what appeared to be a snub to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, Trump excluded North Carolina from the moratorium, allowing testing and drilling to occur.

Although WesternGeco is no longer interested in North Carolina waters, other companies have also applied. Without a federal moratorium, the coast is still vulnerable. Senior Attorney Catherine Wannamaker with the Southern Environmental Law Center issued a statement:

“The entire East Coast is unified in opposition to seismic blasting and oil drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, and this appears to be another recognition of that reality. But, like the President’s announcement this week, this isn’t a cause for celebration. Just as the other Atlantic states are still at risk for drilling, there are still other companies pursuing seismic blasting. We still have work to do.”

The Cooper administration, including the NC Department of Environmental Quality, has fought offshore drilling since 2017. Nearly every local government along the North Carolina coast also has opposed it, over concerns about potential spills and their effect on marine life, fisheries, water quality and tourism.

This part of the Atlantic Ocean is beyond states’ jurisdictional boundary of three miles, but energy exploration companies still must seek state certification to determine if the proposals comply with their respective coastal management laws. If the state objects, as has North Carolina, the federal government can’t issue a permit. However, the US Department of Commerce ultimately rules on appeals and disputes.

In June, the federal government overruled North Carolina’s objection to seismic testing off the coast, saying the activity proposed by the company WesternGeco is in the national interest. The decision allowed the BOEM to issue permits for seismic testing on the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf, roughly from Maryland to Florida. Four more companies have requested permits.

In response, last month NC Attorney General Josh Stein filed suit last month against the Trump administration to block the action.

Michael Jasny, director of the marine mammal protection project at the Natural Resources Defense Council called on the remaining companies to follow WesternGeco’s lead and withdraw their applications.

“This withdrawal is a sign of how strong the bipartisan opposition is—by coastal communities and officials at every level—to the harm that seismic explosions along the Atlantic coast would cause to marine life, to our oceans, and to our climate.”

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