By Mark Hibbs, Coastal Review Online editor
A company recently denied state permits to conduct seismic surveys for oil and natural gas off the North Carolina coast is appealing to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to override the decision.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Coastal Management found in June that WesternGeco’s proposal to conduct geological and geophysical surveys in the Atlantic was incomplete, inconsistent with the state’s enforceable coastal management policies and would harm fish and other marine life and put at risk coastal habitats and the coastal marine economy.
WesternGeco, a Texas-based firm, filed its appeal to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on July 11, DEQ Division of Coastal Management Director Braxton Davis said Wednesday during a meeting of the Coastal Resources Commission in Beaufort.
The appeal of the state’s decision is allowed under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act, and the Division of Coastal Management is working with the state attorney general’s office to map out the legal process and next steps, Davis said during the meeting at the at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Beaufort Lab on Pivers Island.
Davis explained that WesternGeco was the fifth company to seek a federal consistency certification for seismic exploration off the state’s coast. WesternGeco and the four other companies each received from NOAA authorization for unintentional harm to marine mammals under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. WesternGeco’s and the other companies’ Incidental Harassment Authorizations were approved in November 2018.
“And that along with the other four companies that have IHAs,” Davis said, “those are all in court, in litigation right now. So, this fifth company, their permit would be depending on that litigation but also on our federal consistency review.”
In March, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein and state attorneys general from Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Virginia joined the case filed in December in South Carolina seeking a motion for a preliminary injunction to block seismic testing off the East Coast.
The lawsuit claims that the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act when it issued Incidental Harassment Authorizations in November.
The North Carolina Coastal Federation, which publishes Coastal Review Online, along with the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceana, One Hundred Miles, Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation joined to file the lawsuit. The Southern Environmental Law Center is representing South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, Defenders of Wildlife, North Carolina Coastal Federation and One Hundred Miles. Earthjustice is representing Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation.
Seismic exploration uses an array of airguns, usually steel cylinders charged with high-pressure air, to emit acoustic energy pulses into the seafloor at a firing pressure of about 2,000 pounds per square inch. The blast generates a signal that reflects or refracts off of the seafloor and subsurface layers with the return signal recorded and later analyzed to create maps that are used to depict the location of any oil or gas reserves below the seafloor.
Opponents and marine scientists say the blasts can disturb the normal behavioral patterns of marine mammals, including dolphins and endangered North Atlantic right whales, and other marine life.
“We remain vigilant in our opposition to activities related to oil and gas exploration off the North Carolina coast,” said DEQ Secretary Michael S. Regan in a statement. “WesternGeco’s proposal for seismic airgun blasting poses too many risks to our commercial and recreational fishing economy, marine life and overall coastal environment and economy that our state cannot afford to take. We will use any available avenues to fight WesternGeco’s appeal.”
Regan’s statement explains that the appeal process allows the company and the state to file briefs presenting their arguments and documentation to Ross for his decision. Federal rules for overriding the state’s decision require Ross to find that WesternGeco’s must further the national interest in a significant manner; that this national interest must outweigh the adverse coastal effects, when those effects are considered separately or cumulatively; and no reasonable alternative exists that would permit the activity to be conducted in a manner consistent with the state’s enforceable policies.
Before any companies can begin seismic testing, they must also receive permits from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Also Wednesday, Davis reminded the Coastal Resources Commission that the next step in the development of the 2019-2024 national leasing program for offshore oil and natural gas could still be released in the near future, with a 90-day public comment period commencing with the announcement.
“It’s not yet known if North Carolina will continue to be part of the proposed program. If it is, proposed lease areas could be identified as soon as this fall with possible lease sales to follow soon after,” Davis said.
The first of three proposals for 2019-2024, the Draft Proposed Program, was released on Jan. 4, 2018, with a 60-day comment period that ended March 9, 2018.
Coastal Review Online Assistant Editor Jennifer Allen contributed to this report.