The Trump administration on Friday approved key permits that could allow seismic testing to go forward on the Atlantic Coast, a prelude to offshore oil drilling and a move that is antagonizing Republican governors and lawmakers in the Southeast, whose support the president will need in a 2020 re-election bid.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, an arm of the U.S. Commerce Department, agreed Friday to let five companies cause possible harm to wildlife in conducting seismic testing between northern Delaware and central Florida. That testing is expected to provide oil companies with valuable data on which parts of the coastal shelf contain oil deposits that could be extracted through offshore drilling platforms.
Environmental groups oppose the testing because of its potential harm to marine mammals, and coastal communities are livid that the White House would risk impacts to tourism.
“Today’s decision is about our coastal economies, the sustainability of our fisheries, and the health of our oceans, given the impacts that seismic blasting will have this year and, if it goes on, for years to come,” said Michael Jasny, director of the Marine Mammal Protect for the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
While many Republican governors split with environmentalists, Rick Scott of Florida and Henry McMaster of South Carolina are among those who have come out against Trump’s plans for Atlantic offshore oil drilling.
“Governor McMaster has made it very clear that offshore drilling is an unacceptable threat that could destroy the pristine beaches, marshes and wetlands that drive South Carolina’s vibrant tourism economy,” said Brian Symmes, a spokesman for McMaster. “The governor will continue to work with coastal state governors, mayors and members of Congress to convince the administration that Atlantic Coast offshore drilling is not in our nation’s best interest, because it certainly isn’t in South Carolina’s.”
More than 100 members of Congress and at least nine attorneys general, who could bog down the seismic testing permits with lawsuits, are also lining up in opposition.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, who has organized other attorneys general to oppose the administration’s seismic testing, made clear on Friday he plans to explore legal avenues.
“The Trump administration’s grant of these authorizations is misguided and unlawful,” Frosh said in a statement. “In opening the door to harassment of tens of thousands of marine mammals, including endangered species, the administration has again placed the interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of our irreplaceable natural resources.”
President Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to increase oil exploration and production, and his administration has preached a doctrine of “energy dominance.” Oil companies have lauded his efforts to reduce taxes on corporations, rollback environmental regulations and reverse permit decisions by the Obama administration.
Soon after Trump took office, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management reversed an Obama decision to reject seismic testing permits for five companies. Friday’s decision would grant those companies permits to deliver seismic blasts by massive air guns in surveys of the ocean floor, disturbing marine mammals.
When the administration advanced plans for off-shore oil drilling in 2017, business groups up and down the Atlantic vowed to block the plan.
“The wall of opposition that has been built up to Atlantic drilling and seismic testing is amazing,” said Frank Knapp, chief executive of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce. He helped form a group called the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, supported by more than 41,000 businesses and 500,000 commercial fishing families on the East Coast.
In Florida, Governor-elect Ron DeSantis ran on a platform of opposing offshore oil drilling, even though Democrats say he never made it a priority while serving in Congress. Trump’s victory in Florida in 2016 was key to his surprising win, and the Sunshine State will also be crucial if he hopes to win reelection.
In South Carolina, both Republicans who represent coastal districts — Mark Sanford and Tom Rice — oppose seismic testing.
The Democrat who won Sanford’s 1st Congressional District seat in November is also vowing to fight the practice in the House of Representatives, after making it the No. 1 issue in his successful race against Republican Katie Arrington.
“I am extremely disappointed in today’s decision to move forward with seismic airgun blasting off the Atlantic Coast,” said incoming Rep. Joe Cunningham. “This decision not only has significant environmental implications, it moves the Lowcountry one step closer to dangerous and unwanted offshore oil drilling.”
In Virginia, Democratic Rep. Don Beyer has introduced H.R. 2158, the Atlantic Seismic Airgun Protection Act, to prohibit such testing. “Given that the Trump administration has formally announced its intention to ignore the concerns of residents and stakeholders directly impacted by these actions, it is time for Congress to step in,” Beyer said.
The five companies applying for the seismic testing permits are Spectrum GEO, Ion GeoVentures, CGG, TGS-Notec and WesternGeco, a subsidiary of Schlumberger. The surveys they produce would be proprietary, and highly lucrative for the companies involved.
“The public won’t actually have this information,” said Diane Hoskins, a campaign director for Oceana, a conservation group. “It will be sold to the off-shore oil industry for their exclusive use.”
McClatchy’s Emma Dumain and Brian Murphy contributed to this story.