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Obama Administration Denies Atlantic Ocean Airgun Seismic Survey Requests

Citing the fact that no oil and gas lease sales are planned through at least 2022, the Obama administration on Friday denied six pending applications that sought to conduct airgun seismic surveys in the Mid- and South Atlantic Planning Areas of the Atlantic Ocean.

The decision to deny the geophysical and geological (G&G) permit applications was based on several factors, the Department of Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) said. Key to the denials is the "diminished need" for additional seismic information, officials said. The Mid- and South Atlantic region last year was removed from the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program following criticism by coastal communities, legislators and the military.

The final proposed five-year leasing program was issued in November.

"In the present circumstances and guided by an abundance of caution, we believe that the value of obtaining the geophysical and geological information from new airgun seismic surveys in the Atlantic does not outweigh the potential risks of those surveys' acoustic pulse impacts on marine life," said BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper. "Since federal waters in the Mid- and South Atlantic have been removed from leasing consideration for the next five years, there is no immediate need for these surveys."

Other factors that weighed on BOEM's decision included the possibility that the information would not be used if the Atlantic were not offered for future oil and gas leasing; acquired data could become dated if leasing was "far" in the future; and the likelihood that "lower impact" survey technology could be developed before G&G would be needed.

The decision only impacts the six permit applications that would have used airgun seismic surveys for proposed oil and gas exploration deep beneath the ocean floor. Surveys for other, shallow-depth purposes typically do not use airguns, BOEM said. "While surveys may have some impacts to marine life, airgun seismic surveys have the potential for greater impacts."

The goal of G&G surveys is to produce maps or models that indicate the earth's geography, stratigraphy, rock distribution and geological structure delineation. Deep penetration seismic surveys are conducted by vessels towing an array of airguns that emit acoustic energy pulses into the seafloor over long durations and large areas. Seismic airguns may penetrate several thousand meters beneath the seafloor.

The Obama administration initially advocated for limited offshore drilling in the Mid- and South Atlantic area in the draft leasing strategy for 2017-2022 that was issued early in 2015. However, many coastal communities, conservation groups, legislators and the military protested, citing various concerns.

The plan faced more scrutiny after the Southern Environmental Law Center in late 2015 challenged industry claims that drilling would be a boon to the region. Citing the criticism, the administration last year removed the leasing plan, which would have allowed exploration from Virginia to Georgia.

Oceana campaign director Claire Douglass praised the decision and said it would protect the Atlantic Ocean from harmful activities.  

"With offshore drilling off the table for the near future, there was absolutely no reason to risk the damage that would be caused by seismic airgun blasting in the region," she said. She said more than 120 East Coast municipalities, 1,200-plus elected officials and an alliance representing about 35,000 businesses and 500,000 fishing families are opposed to Atlantic drilling and/or seismic airgun blasting.

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