Seismic tests as a steppingstone to Virginia offshore drilling raises excitement and concern

The Virginian-Pilot | Dave Mayfield | June 26, 2017

A rig won’t drill off the Virginia coast without a new round of seismic surveys for potential oil and gas deposits.

That’s one of the few things about which there’s wide agreement among people who cry “Drill, baby, drill!” and those who counter “Never!”

It helps explain why there’s excitement in the oil industry and worry among environmentalists and many coastal tourism leaders about the Trump administration restarting a process this month that could lead to seismic tests off Virginia and other Atlantic states.

 “We’re very positive about this administration’s progress on this front,” said Nikki Martin, president of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, the seismic industry’s trade group.

“This is really the start of what could be … many years of potential harm” to East Coast creatures ranging from the tiniest plankton to the largest whales, said Francine Kershaw, an ocean scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Atlantic’s seismic countdown began June 6, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a notice in the Federal Register. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service said it will take public comments for 30 days on requests from five companies to “take” marine mammals – disturb or harm them – as a side effect of using high-powered airguns in their seismic testing.

The noise blasts (about as loud as jet airplane at takeoff) penetrate deep beneath the ocean floor. The echos that bounce back become data for supercomputers that then help industry analysts provide estimates for how much oil and gas is trapped way down below.

Before the blasts are permitted, the surveyors need what’s known as an incidental harassment authorization. It sets limits on how they can operate, with the intent of limiting harm to dolphins, porpoises and whales, 34 species of which are known to frequent the area from Delaware to Florida in which seismic surveys are proposed.

President Barack Obama’s administration rejected the applications for authorization – one of its several “no” decisions when it came to Atlantic offshore exploration.

Trump made clear in an executive order in April, however, that he wants to put the coast back in play for potential drilling, and that starting seismic surveys is key. That’s why the seismic companies’ applications were reopened this month.

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