In a long-awaited decision, the Trump administration today is expected to give the green light to five companies that want to take the first step in exploring for offshore oil and natural gas in the Atlantic Ocean.
Delivering what would be a major blow to environmental groups, NOAA Fisheries appears ready to allow the companies to conduct seismic surveying in a huge blast zone that stretches from New Jersey to Florida. Opponents say the zone would cover an area roughly twice the size of California.
While agency officials would not respond to a request for comment last night, drilling opponents were braced for bad news.
"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 Diane Hoskins, campaign director for Oceana, an organization opposed to drilling.
The decision would require NOAA Fisheries to make an official determination that any harm to whales, dolphins and other sea life would be insufficient reason to block the plan.
Industry officials have long argued that there's no proof that seismic surveying harms marine life, while opponents say the loud sounds from airgun blasts can harm or kill many animals.
"Just one week after issuing dire warnings on the catastrophic fallout of climate change to come, the Trump administration is opening our coastlines to for-profit companies to prospect for oil and gas and is willing to sacrifice marine life, our coastal communities and fisheries in the process," said Michael Jasny, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
As part of a two-step process, the plan would still have to be approved by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, an agency in the Interior Department that gets the final say.
Drilling opponents say that's nearly a sure bet to happen soon, noting that both Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have pushed hard to allow more drilling in federal waters.
In January, Zinke said the administration wanted to open more than 90 percent of the outer continental shelf for leasing. That would mark a nearly total reversal from the Obama administration, which put more than 90 percent of the outer continental shelf off-limits.
On Capitol Hill, House Democrats are eager to try to thwart the Trump team's plans when they take control in the new Congress.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who's expected to become chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee in January, said last night that allowing seismic surveying shows "an alarming sign of administration indifference to the fate of coastal communities and marine life."
"There is nothing this administration won't do for the fossil fuel industry, including destroying local economies and ruining endangered species habitats," Grijalva said. "The Natural Resources Committee is going to provide serious checks and balances on this behavior from day one in the next Congress."
Industry officials have accused opponents of fearmongering, especially when some of them raised concerns that seismic surveys could even stir up buried radioactive waste.
Gail Adams, vice president of communications and external affairs for the Houston-based International Association of Geophysical Contractors, said seismic surveys have been conducted around the globe for eight decades without any scientific evidence that they have ever caused explosions or compromised containers with chemical or radiological waste.
"This issue has never been a concern anywhere in the world," Adams said earlier this year.
Whatever happens next, opponents said they're ready for a new battle with both the industry and its backers in the Trump administration.
"This is the first step toward offshore drilling in the Atlantic, and we're going to make sure coastal communities know what's happening and fight this," Oceana's Hoskins said.
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