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Photo: NOAA

The Trump administration today issued draft authorizations to five companies to search for oil off the Atlantic Coast — from Florida to Delaware — using loud seismic airgun blasts that hurt whales, dolphins and other animals. The exploration activities are the first step to opening the Atlantic to new oil drilling.

“Deafening whales and dolphins to hunt for dirty oil in these sensitive coastal environments is reckless and cruel,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Seismic blasting is opposed by people along the East Coast who don’t want the oil industry wreaking havoc in the Atlantic. It’s outrageous that the Trump administration is catering to Big Oil by ignoring the needs of wildlife and coastal communities.”

The proposals would allow the firing of seismic airguns from ships every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, seven days a week at a noise level that would rupture a human eardrum. Nearly 100 municipalities from New Jersey to Florida have adopted resolutions rejecting seismic blasting off the East Coast. And more than 40,000 local businesses and business associations have publicly opposed it, citing threats to marine life and local economies.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration denied six applications for seismic exploration in the Atlantic, in part because the loud blasts would harm critically endangered North Atlantic right whales and other sensitive wildlife. But in May the Trump administration revoked that denial and announced it was reconsidering the permits.

Today’s draft authorizations were issued under a provision in the Marine Mammal Protection Act that allows the federal government to authorize certain industrial activities to harm or injure marine mammals, provided such activities will have no more than a “negligible impact” on the population.

“Whales and dolphins shouldn’t have to endure this onslaught of seismic blasts that can cause painful hearing loss and other damage,” Monsell said. “The Atlantic should stay off limits to the oil and gas industry.”

In 2015, 75 scientists found that opening the Atlantic Ocean to seismic airgun exploration “poses an unacceptable risk of serious harm to marine life,” including North Atlantic right whales, of which fewer than 500 individuals remain on Earth. The scientists also warned of “significant, long-lasting, and widespread” harm to fish and marine mammal populations should the blasting proceed.

Seismic exploration surveys use high-powered airguns to search for deposits of oil and gas. They generate the loudest human sounds in the ocean, short of explosives. The blasts, which can reach more than 250 decibels, can cause hearing loss in marine mammals, disturb essential behaviors such as feeding and breeding over vast distances, mask communications between individual whales and dolphins, and reduce catch rates of commercial fish.

The proposed authorizations are for Spectrum Geo Inc., TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Company, ION GeoVentures, WesternGeco, LLC and CGG. The National Marine Fisheries Service will take comments on the proposals during a 30-day public comment period.

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