‘Like zero’ chance of seismic tests off NC in next drilling ban, interior secretary says

Although President Donald Trump has expanded an offshore drilling moratorium to federal waters off North Carolina, conservation groups are concerned coastal environments could still be endangered by seismic testing.

The U.S. Department of Justice said in a court filing last week that moratoriums against drilling off of North Carolina and other Southeastern states do not prevent companies from conducting seismic testing, a method of mapping oil and natural gas deposits under the ocean floor by blasting loud noises from an array of air guns.. But in an interview with the News & Observer, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said he thinks the moratorium means there is “like zero” chance seismic testing will happen off of the North Carolina coast.

“The president’s action means that it’s extraordinarily unlikely, in my opinion, that there will ever be seismic done in these areas because the entire point of doing it for these companies — in order to want to sell it — is gone,” Bernhardt said.

Environmental groups disagree. Kristen Monsell, a spokeswoman for the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, said that even though the Atlantic seaboard was never opened to offshore drilling in the 2010s, several companies still submitted seismic testing applications to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

“I think that shows that oil and seismic companies will try to get into areas regardless of what’s open to leasing to do seismic to see what’s out there, and if they can find something, then push to have it open,” Monsell said.

The Center for Biological Diversity is one of many plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed in South Carolina trying to block the permitting of seismic testing, a lawsuit joined by N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein. The Department of Justice memo regarding seismic testing and the moratoriums was in response to that lawsuit.

Four companies have outstanding applications and incidental harm authorizations, allowing them to kill or ham wildlife as a side effect of the seismic activity. Another company, WesternGeco, withdrew its application earlier this year.

In a letter to N.C. Department of Environmental Quality officials, WesternGeco said its testing would have included blasting during roughly 208 days over a yearlong period, with sounds ranging from 225 to 260 decibels.

Oceana, an ocean conservancy group, is also a plaintiff in the South Carolina lawsuit. Diane Hoskins, a spokeswoman for Oceana’s advocacy partner, Oceana Action, said the moratorium’s protections do not go far enough.

“If the four companies pull their applications, that would be the level of certainty our coastal economies deserve,” Hoskins said, later adding, “This an investment in the future of offshore drilling that our states and coastal economies don’t want.”

North Carolina environmental officials have formally objected to seismic testing, saying the loud sounds could harm coastal activities such as fishing and tourism and are inconsistent with state coastal policies.

The U.S. Department of Commerce granted WesternGeco’s appeal to that state decision, and the matter is now the subject of a federal lawsuit. Although WesternGeco withdrew its application, Stein said this month that the state’s lawsuit would move forward to address the four other seismic applications.

Trump initially imposed a 10-year moratorium for the waters off of the Atlantic coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina in early September. That led to an outcry from officials in North Carolina and Virginia, demanding that the order be extended to their waters.

On Sept. 25, Trump submitted an executive order granting North Carolina the same 10-year moratorium against offshore energy development that he had previously extended to Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. The order came after a public letter from Gov. Roy Cooper and, Bernhardt said, private conversations with Sen. Thom Tillis.

“The president actually really listens to the views of senators and governors … as well as House of Representatives members,” Bernhardt said. “And when all of those folks line up, I think the president is willing to lean pretty far forward.”

Offshore drilling in the United States is guided right now by the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, an Obama-era plan that omitted the Atlantic seaboard. But the Trump administration and ex-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke took comments on a proposed 2019-2024 oil and gas program. That initial proposal sought to drastically open US. waters to drilling, including those off the North Carolina coast.

As with past conversations about opening the North Carolina coast to drilling, the replacement five-year plan was met with stiff opposition. Residents packed a public hearing in Raleigh where nearly every comment was opposed to the proposal.

The 2019-2024 plan stalled, though, after a federal judge ruled that the Trump administration could not overrule Obama-era protections and allow drilling in parts of the Arctic Ocean and canyons in the Atlantic. No matter what happens with that particular plan, Bernhardt said, the moratorium will prevent drilling off of the North Carolina coast.

“It would be safe to say that any notion … that Secretary Zinke had that we would have a plan that opened areas to leasing that included areas geographically within the areas of the withdrawal, all of that is dead,” Bernhardt said, referring to the area off the Southeastern United States.

The 10-year moratorium, Bernhardt noted, would protect North Carolina and other areas through two cycles of five-year plans and also through parts of at least two presidential administrations.

Asked about extending the moratorium or making protections permanent, Bernhardt said, “It’s not a discussion we need to have until 2032.”

Monsell of the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, though, questioned the Trump administration’s commitment to protecting the geographic areas, pointing to Trump’s recent remarks in Virginia about opening that state’s coast back up to offshore drilling if residents there asked for it.

“If they were really serious about doing this, they would permanently protect these areas and also include seismic in those protections,” Monsell said.

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