The National Ocean Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Fisheries Office of Protected Resources (FOPR) has issued final authorizations to five companies allowing them to "incidentally, but not intentionally, harass marine mammals" while conducting geophysical surveys in support of oil and natural gas exploration off the Atlantic coast from Delaware to Florida.
The authorizations require monitoring, reporting and mitigation measures to reduce the impacts of survey activities on marine mammals, said FOPR Director Donna Wieting during a conference call with reporters Friday.
In April 2017, President Trump signed an executive order (EO) directing the Department of Interior (DOI) to consider allowing oil and gas leasing in several offshore areas, including the Atlantic and Arctic oceans, the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, Alaska's Cook Inlet and the Gulf of Mexico.
The EO -- titled "Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy" -- also called for DOI to coordinate with the Commerce Department to create a streamlined permitting process for privately funded seismic data research and collection in the offshore areas, and ordered Commerce to refrain from designating or expanding any national marine sanctuary in the offshore.
The authorizations alone do not open the door to more testing off the Atlantic coast. While NOAA Fisheries is tasked with reviewing requests relative to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the companies must receive authorization from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for oil and gas exploration and development. The lengthy process to obtain drilling permits could be further mired by political considerations, as several elected officials in Atlantic coast states have expressed opposition to offshore drilling.
"Delaware has made clear its opposition to seismic testing because our state’s economy relies on the health and well-being of our coasts," said Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "Today’s proposal is a threat to our economy, our environment and our way of life all along the East Coast.
"Clean coastal waters and the ocean ecosystems they support draw millions of visitors from around the country and billions of dollars for our coastal communities. This decision unnecessarily puts those economic drivers at risk, along with the vibrant marine life that inhabits the waters off of our coast."