The Trump administration is seeking permission to use seismic air guns to find oil and gas formations deep underneath the Atlantic Ocean floor, a reversal from the Obama administration that is outraging environmental groups and some East Coast lawmakers.
The National Marine Fisheries Service said Monday it is seeking permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act for five companies to use air guns for seismic surveys in the mid-Atlantic, from Delaware to central Florida.
The air guns are so loud they can disturb or injure endangered whales and other marine mammals and increase the risk of calves being separated from their mothers. Environmental groups and many East Coast lawmakers oppose the surveys, complaining that air-gun noise can injure marine life and harm commercial fishing and tourism.
The oil and gas industry has pushed for the surveys, which would map potential drilling sites from Delaware to central Florida. No surveys have been conducted in the region for at least 30 years.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April aimed at expanding drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, part of his promise to unleash the nation's energy reserves in an effort to reduce imports of foreign oil.
Under Trump's order, the Interior Department is reviewing applications by five energy companies that were rejected by the Obama administration.
In addition to providing data on potential sites for offshore oil and natural gas production, seismic surveys are also used to locate sites for offshore wind structures, pinpoint potential seafloor hazards and locate sand and gravel resources for beach restoration.
Data from seismic surveys also assists officials in determining fair market value of offshore resources.
More than 100 East Coast cities and towns, a range of commercial and recreational fishing groups and an alliance representing nearly 40,000 businesses have publicly opposed air-gun blasting.
"Seismic air guns create one of the loudest man-made sounds in the ocean," said Ingrid Biedron, a marine scientist at the environmental group Oceana. The air guns fire intense blasts of compressed air every 10 to 12 seconds, 24 hours a day, for weeks to months on end, she said.
The noise from these blasts is so loud that it can be heard up to 2,500 miles away — about the same distance as a flight from New York City to Los Angeles, Biedron said.
Industry groups counter that seismic surveys have been conducted in the U.S. and around the world for decades, with little adverse impacts.
"There has been no documented scientific evidence of noise from these surveys adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities," said Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association.
Rick Baumann, owner of Murrells Inlet Seafood in South Carolina, called seismic blasting and offshore drilling "a real threat to our way of life and our ability to provide fresh seafood to the public."
The U.S. seafood industry "is struggling to survive," Baumann said on a conference call arranged by an environmental group. "We don't need our fishing stocks injured, damaged or killed."
The fisheries service said at a news conference that air-gun operations would include measures to monitor and mitigate any harm to marine mammals, including a requirement that observers board all vessels to alert operators if a protected species comes within a certain distance; acoustic monitoring to detect marine mammals beneath the ocean surface; and required shutdowns when sensitive species or animal groups are observed.
The agency will accept public comments on the proposed surveys through July 7.