Trump Regulators Gave Oil Industry a Pass to Injure Whales With Seismic Blasting


Video courtesy of The Guardian

Recently, United States Representative Joe Cunningham (D-SC) blasted a Trump official with an air horn. During a House committee hearing on the environmental impact of seismic airgun testing, the official claimed the practice isn’t disruptive to marine animals. That’s when Cunningham pulled out his air horn — a device 16,000 times quieter than the seismic guns.

The bold move follows the Trump administration’s decision last November to greenlight seismic surveys in the Atlantic, which are used to identify dirty energy deposits deep within the Atlantic Ocean floor. If the oil and gas industry gets its way, the continuous blasts of seismic airguns are expected to injure, harass, disrupt, and even kill marine life like whales, dolphins, and sea turtles across 200,000 square miles of ocean waters. In particular, the low, guttural bellows and high-pitched calls of the endangered North Atlantic right whale could soon be drowned out — or altogether silenced.

That’s why Earthjustice is challenging the administration’s actions in court. And on February 20th, we joined a coalition of other conservation groups asking a federal judge to block the start of seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic Ocean until our case has been heard.

The tests, harmful in their own right, are just the first step in the administration’s broader plans to open up 90 percent of U.S. federal offshore waters to the fossil fuel industry, despite widespread opposition from Americans across the nation.

“Seismic airgun surveys pose a dual threat to the biologically rich waters off the Atlantic coast,” says Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda. “Their continuous blasts can injure and deafen whales, dolphins and other marine life, and they are the sonic harbingers of even greater risks associated with eventual offshore oil and gas drilling.”

The administration’s announcement couldn’t come at a worse time for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Over the past decade, their numbers have declined dramatically due to multiple entanglements and ship strikes that harm and kill the whales. And last winter, no new calves were observed in their traditional breeding grounds off the Florida and Georgia coastline. Currently only about 440 right whales remain, with only about 100 breeding females, leading some experts to worry that the species could go extinct in as little as 20 years.

Seismic survey ships map the subsea geology using the seismic sound produced by air guns towed behind the vessel. Image credit International Maritime Organization, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Despite their critical status, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has authorized five companies to “incidentally take” marine mammals while conducting seismic airgun surveys, which aren’t nearly as innocuous as they first sound. These seismic blasts create noise louder than a rocket launch, and are discharged at about 10-second intervals, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for months on end as they make their way across the ocean floor.

The fisheries service knows full well that this extreme noise pollution can be incredibly harmful, which is why it has exempted the companies from responsibility for harming and harassing ocean wildlife protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Earthjustice, on behalf of the Surfrider Foundation and the Sierra Club, and in partnership with a broad coalition of local and national groups, is suing the agency over its decision to allow seismic testing. We have also asked the judge to issue a preliminary injunction on seismic airgun blasting to prevent the seismic blasts from causing irreparable damage to marine life while the case is being decided.

Our resolve is bolstered by the intense opposition to Trump’s broader oil drilling plan that’s been registered around the country, from public hearings in Connecticut and California, to the more than 1 million comments that people submitted in opposition to Trump’s proposed drilling plans.

Together, we will fight to uphold the belief that no one is above the law, certainly not companies who want to drill and damage a public resource—our oceans and wildlife—for private gain.

Featured image: A right whale adult and calf. Image credit Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit # 665-1652, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Today’s environmental challenges are greater than ever. But we live in a country of strong environmental laws—and EarthJustice holds those who break our nation’s laws accountable for their actions. EarthJustice has been the legal backbone for thousands of organizations, large and small. As the nation’s original and largest nonprofit environmental law organization, we leverage our expertise and commitment to fight for justice and advance the promise of a healthy world for all. Click to see author's profile.

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