No atlantic drilling for now, but seismic airgun blasts might go on _ the kansas city star

Despite the Obama administration’s recent decision to scrap its offshore drilling plans for the southeast Atlantic coast, eight permits for seismic testing are still being pursued in an area of ocean twice the size of California, stretching from Delaware to Florida.

The same coastal communities and environmental activists in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia who galvanized around offshore drilling are just as opposed to airgun blasting off their coast, which they say would harm not only important marine life but also the fishing and tourism industries.

Seismic airguns are used to explore the reserves of oil and gas deep beneath the ocean floor. They are towed behind ships, shooting loud blasts of compressed air deep into the seabed and reflecting information about the buried oil and gas deposits. These blasts can be repeated every 10 seconds for days to weeks at a time.

As an opponent to drilling offshore of South Carolina, there is no reason for me to support the seismic testing that is the precursor to drilling. South Carolina state Sen. Chip Campsen

“If you’re not going to drill, if that’s been off the table, what are they doing? Why would we want to take a chance of harming our ocean life? So the companies that do the testing can make millions and the petroleum industry can have it in their back pocket for later?” asked Frank Knapp, president of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.

Exploration requests by eight companies are being processed, and none has been withdrawn following the drilling decision, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management confirmed to McClatchy. The seismic testing permits are expected to be released sometime in April, followed by a 30-day comment period. The Interior Department received more than 1 million comments on the proposed draft on offshore drilling leases, most from coastal communities big and small down the coast, from Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Beaufort in South Carolina to Savannah in Georgia.

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“As scientists, these loud, sharp blasts of noise are really concerning,” said Ingrid Biedron, a marine scientist at the environmental group Oceana. “They’re so loud that they can travel up to 2,500 miles, the distance from D. C. to Las Vegas.”

She said the practice could be especially harmful to endangered species off the coasts of the Southeastern states, such as North Atlantic whales, of which fewer than 500 are left.

“Noise from airguns could disrupt the communication that’s essential for their survival,” she said in an interview. “Their critical habitat includes the entire coast of South Carolina down to Florida. They are so endangered that even the loss of two animals could tip the population towards extinction.”

New maps released by Oceana last week show the overlap between the five areas in the Atlantic currently considered by applications for seismic airgun blasting with known habitats for endangered species such as the loggerhead turtle, scalloped hammerhead shark and North Atlantic whale.

Some studies show that seismic airgun noise can reduce fish species – including tuna, marlin, swordfish, snapper and sea bass – by 40 to 80 percent, Bierdon said.

23 Municipalities in South Carolina formally opposed to seismic airgun blasting and offshore drilling, representing 100 percent of coastal cities and towns in the state.

This concern has been voiced by leaders of coastal communities, who have made the economic side of the argument in statements to the federal government. In a 2014 letter to Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, former Charleston, South Carolina, Mayor Joseph Riley said the Interior Department “ignores the economic impacts the proposed seismic testing will have on fisheries and the fishermen who rely on the oceans for their livelihood.”

Even putting the environmental concerns aside, many lawmakers submitted letters to the Interior Department saying the coastal states would not benefit from the testing.

“When seismic testing is paid for by the energy companies and only shared with BOEM and not the states, it means that South Carolina would be on the outside looking in,” Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S. C ., said in a letter last year, writing that he had “initially been intrigued” by the possibilities of seismic testing.

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This view is supported by a coalition of nine coastal governors, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who say that exploring offshore could bring would thousands of jobs and billions in revenue to their states.

The group supports seismic testing because updated data is “necessary for policymakers to make informed decisions” about energy policy, even if the Atlantic doesn’t see drilling until the next administration’s plan in 2022.

“As (Haley) has worked with members of the congressional delegation and the General Assembly on this critical economic development issue, she’s also been clear: Exploring offshore for energy is critical to our future because it means jobs, energy independence from other countries and security for our state,” Haley’s press secretary, Chaney Adams, told McClatchy on Tuesday in a statement.

Gov. Haley believes offshore exploration should be done in a way that protects, and never compromises, our environment, our ports or our tourism industry. Chaney Adams, press secretary for S. C. Gov. Nikki Haley

For many opponents, there’s a simple answer to the seismic exploration question: With Atlantic drilling off the table for the next five years anyway, just wait for better technology.

“The science of testing for belowground oil and gas reserves is rapidly transitioning to lesser and lesser harmful methods,” Knapp said. “And if we wait 10 years we’re going to say, ‘What the heck were we exploding that stuff underwater for? We didn’t have to do that.’ ”