Reversing another Obama administration policy, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management restarted the process for reviewing proposed seismic surveys for oil and gas exploration off the Atlantic coast.

“Seismic surveying helps a variety of federal and state partners better understand our nation’s offshore areas, including locating offshore hazards, siting of wind turbines, as well as offshore energy development,” said Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in announcing the decision May 10.

“Allowing this scientific pursuit enables us to safely identify and evaluate resources that belong to the American people. This will play an important role in the President’s strategy to create jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign energy resources.”

The move restarts the process toward granting geologic and geophysical (G&G) applications from six geotechnical services companies, who would conduct acoustic soundings of the sea floor from Virginia to Georgia as an early step toward identifying potential hydrocarbon reserves.

Blocking those surveys has been a key element of a campaign by environmental, coastal tourism and fishing groups to prevent oil and gas development on the Atlantic continental shelf. They succeeded last year, when the Obama administration removed Atlantic leases from the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, and in its final days, suspended the permitting of seismic surveys.

Last month President Trump directed the Department of Interior and BOEM to begin work on a new offshore lease program, “and the information gained from possible seismic surveys in the Atlantic will help inform future decision-making,” according to a Department of Interior statement.

The 2016 decision by the Obama administration to suspend permitting “underestimated the benefits of obtaining updated G&G information and ignored the conclusions of BOEM’s Atlantic G&G Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision, which showed that no significant impacts are expected to occur as a result of these seismic surveys,” the Interior statement added. The geophysical companies had appealed the earlier decisions, and “them remand would not approve the permits, but would allow BOEM to resume its evaluation to determine whether they will individually be approved or denied. “

A key argument of survey opponents is the effect of noise from seismic air guns on sea life, particularly protected marine mammal species. In response South Carolina officials have sought seasonal restrictions on surveys, while BOEM and industry advocates say there are adequate safeguards.

“Seismic surveys are not expected to have significant impacts on marine mammal populations or the environment given the use of advanced technology and other safeguards that are currently required,” the agency said. “BOEM currently employs mitigation measures and safeguards to reduce or eliminate impacts to marine life while setting a path forward for appropriate G&G survey activities off the Mid- and South Atlantic coast to update data on the region’s offshore resources.”

“The offshore oil and gas industry has safely conducted seismic surveys in the U.S. and around the world for decades to assess the location and size of potential offshore oil and natural gas deposits,” said Randell Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association. “There has been no documented scientific evidence of noise from these surveys adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities.”

The prospect of Atlantic energy development has split political factions in South Carolina and Virginia, where local leaders in coastal communities oppose drilling while some state lawmakers see economic opportunity. The Obama administration felt pressure too from other Mid-Atlantic states with big summer shore resorts.

In Congress about 100 members of the House of Representatives signed onto a letter urging Zinke to keep the Obama-era limits on Atlantic and Pacific exploration. Two of those lawmakers, Reps. Don Beyer, D-Va., and Frank LoBiondo, R-NJ, whose district includes Atlantic City and a string of New Jersey beach resort towns, introduced a measure to block seismic testing.

“Drilling anywhere in the Mid-Atlantic would directly put our coasts at risk. Even a spill off of Virginia would find its way to our shores,” said Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter.

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.