Did Obama Just Signal That He’ll Open the Atlantic Coast to Drilling?

The Scarabeo-9 drilling rig, owned by the Spanish company Repsol, started deepwater drilling off the coast of Cuba in January.
National Journal
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
July 18, 2014, 10:14 a.m.

The In­teri­or De­part­ment said Fri­day that it will al­low com­pan­ies to use seis­mic air guns and oth­er meth­ods to gauge oil-and-gas re­sources un­der­ly­ing At­lantic Coast wa­ters.

The de­part­ment’s Bur­eau of Ocean En­ergy Man­age­ment fi­nal­ized a plan that lays out a series of en­vir­on­ment­al re­stric­tions—aimed at pro­tect­ing mar­ine life, such as whales, dol­phins, and sea turtles—for com­pan­ies seek­ing to look for oil in mid- and South At­lantic wa­ters. A num­ber of com­pan­ies have ap­plied for per­mits for test­ing that would up­date old es­tim­ates of oil and gas un­der­ly­ing the wa­ters that have long been off-lim­its to drilling.

The plan is a blow to en­vir­on­ment­al­ists who say that the un­der­wa­ter blasts will wreak hav­oc. “Im­pacts to mar­ine mam­mals could in­clude everything from tem­por­ary or per­man­ent hear­ing loss, to dis­rup­tion of vi­tal be­ha­vi­ors like com­mu­nic­at­ing, feed­ing, mat­ing, calv­ing, and mi­grat­ing, [as well as] mask­ing of bio­lo­gic­ally im­port­ant sounds,” said Claire Dou­glass of the group Oceana.

In­teri­or’s Bur­eau of Ocean En­ergy Man­age­ment de­fen­ded the seis­mic-test­ing de­cision, and a seni­or of­fi­cial said test­ing may be­gin as soon as early next year. Fri­day’s de­cision doesn’t ap­prove any per­mits but rather sets out a frame­work for how In­teri­or will gov­ern the pro­cess.

“The [Bur­eau of Ocean En­ergy Man­age­ment] de­cision re­flects a care­fully ana­lyzed and bal­anced ap­proach that will al­low us to in­crease our un­der­stand­ing of po­ten­tial off­shore re­sources while pro­tect­ing the hu­man, mar­ine, and coastal en­vir­on­ments,” said Wal­ter D. Cruick­shank, act­ing head of the agency.

Op­pon­ents of oil-and-gas de­vel­op­ment fear that the plan is a step to­ward al­low­ing com­pan­ies to start drilling off the At­lantic Coast.

Sen. Bill Nel­son, a Flor­ida Demo­crat, said he’s pre­par­ing a let­ter to the White House with some oth­er Flor­ida law­makers that calls the seis­mic test­ing plan “the first ma­jor step to­ward open­ing the At­lantic Ocean to off­shore drilling.” The let­ter also calls the test­ing dan­ger­ous to mar­ine mam­mals and fish­er­ies. Demo­crat­ic Sen. Ed­ward Mar­key of Mas­sachu­setts had a sim­il­ar re­ac­tion.

But while the frame­work an­nounced Fri­day paves the way for new test­ing, Cruick­shank in­sisted that it does not tele­graph a fu­ture de­cision to open up the At­lantic Coast to drilling. In­teri­or is in the early stages of craft­ing its 2017-22 off­shore lease sale plan.

In 2010 Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced plans to lease drilling blocs off the mid- and South At­lantic coast in the 2012-17 off­shore pro­gram, but backed off after the BP oil spill. The oil in­dustry is lob­by­ing for ac­cess to the re­gion in the 2017-22 plan that’s un­der de­vel­op­ment.

Oil-in­dustry groups wel­come the chance to con­duct seis­mic test­ing but said they fear the pro­cess will be too re­strict­ive. “We re­main con­cerned this pro­cess will be hindered by un­ne­ces­sary hurdles lack­ing sci­entif­ic jus­ti­fic­a­tion,” said Jeff Vorber­ger, a seni­or of­fi­cial with the Na­tion­al Ocean In­dus­tries As­so­ci­ation.

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