Groups Sue Feds to Stop Seismic Airgun Blasting in Atlantic Ocean

First step toward offshore drilling jeopardizes critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, puts marine life at risk


Maggie Caldwell, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2084


Dustin Cranor, Oceana, (954) 348-1314


Anne Hawke, Natural Resources Defense Council, (646) 823-4518


Mike Mather, Southern Environmental Law Center, (434) 333-9464


Kristen Monsell, Center for Biological Diversity, (914) 806-3467


Gabby Brown, Sierra Club, (914) 261-4626 


Angela Howe, Surfrider Foundation, (949) 732-6414

Leading environmental groups sued the federal government today to prevent seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic Ocean. This extremely loud and dangerous process, which is used to search for oil and gas deposits deep below the ocean’s surface, is the first step toward offshore drilling. If allowed, seismic airgun blasting would harm marine life, including whales, dolphins, fish, and zooplankton — the foundation of the ocean food web.

The lawsuit, filed in South Carolina, claims that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act when it issued Incidental Harassment Authorizations (IHAs) in late November. Those permits authorize five companies to harm or harass marine mammals while conducting seismic airgun blasting in an area twice the size of California, stretching from Cape May, New Jersey to Cape Canaveral, Florida. 

The government has estimated that seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic could harass or harm marine mammals like dolphins and whales — which depend on sound to feed, mate, and communicate — hundreds of thousands of times. Seismic airgun blasting would also jeopardize the iconic North Atlantic right whale, a critically endangered species, according to 28 leading right whale experts.

Below are statements from the groups involved in the lawsuit:

“This action is unlawful and we’re going to stop it,” said Diane Hoskins, campaign director at Oceana. “The Trump administration’s rash decision to harm marine mammals hundreds of thousands of times in the hope of finding oil and gas is shortsighted and dangerous. Seismic airgun blasting can harm everything from tiny zooplankton and fish to dolphins and whales. More than 90 percent of the coastal municipalities in the blast zone have publicly opposed seismic airgun blasting off their coast. We won this fight before and we’ll win it again.”

“The Trump administration has steamrolled over objections of scientists, governors and thousands of coastal communities and businesses to enable this dangerous activity. Now it wants to steamroll the law,” said Michael Jasny, director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Allowing seismic blasting at this scale in these waters is not consistent with the laws that protect our oceans.”

“Ignoring the mounting opposition to offshore drilling, the decision to push forward with unnecessarily harmful seismic testing defies the law, let alone common sense,” said Catherine Wannamaker, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). “An overwhelming number of communities, businesses, and elected officials have made it clear that seismic blasting — a precursor to drilling that no one wants — has no place off our coasts.”

“Seismic airgun surveys pose a dual threat to the biologically rich waters off the Atlantic coast,” said Steve Mashuda, managing attorney for oceans at Earthjustice. “Their continuous blasts can injure and deafen whales, dolphins and other marine life, and they are the sonic harbingers of even greater risks associated with offshore oil and gas drilling.”

“The Trump administration is letting the oil industry launch a brutal sonic assault on North Atlantic right whales and other marine life,” said Kristen Monsell, ocean program legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Right whales will keep spiraling toward extinction if we don’t stop these deafening blasts and the drilling and spilling that could come next. That’s why we’re taking the administration to court.”

“South Carolina has spoken: We don’t want offshore oil and gas drilling,” said Laura Cantral, executive director at South Carolina Coastal Conservation League. “Seismic blasting is a big step in that direction, threatening our fragile coast and economy. We will firmly defend our communities and vulnerable marine life.”

“Seismic blasting poses unacceptable risks to vulnerable marine wildlife, especially the critically imperiled North Atlantic right whale,” said Jane Davenport, senior staff attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “The species already faces effective extinction within a few short decades. The right whale simply cannot withstand the direct harm and habitat degradation seismic blasting will cause.”

“Seismic testing and offshore drilling is incompatible with our coast in North Carolina,” said Todd Miller, executive director at North Carolina Coastal Federation. “There’s never a window that would be a good time for seismic testing to happen. Studies show that seismic affects the behaviors of marine mammals, fish and zooplankton, and seismic is harmful for fisheries. And on top of all that, it’s a precursor to offshore drilling which is strongly opposed here in North Carolina.”

“With a vibrant commercial fishery industry and the only known calving ground for endangered North Atlantic right whales just off our coast, Georgians oppose seismic testing for offshore oil exploration and the threats it poses to our state’s wildlife, wild places, and quality of life,” said Alice Keyes, vice president at One Hundred Miles. “Our coastal communities have spoken out for years against seismic testing and offshore drilling because they understand what’s at stake — risks to our coastal economy and wildlife ranging from right whales to zooplankton. We are proud to stand with our fellow Georgians and thousands of others across the East Coast in opposition to this dangerous plan.”

“As usual, the Trump administration is pulling out all the stops to give favors to the fossil fuel industry, whatever the cost to coastal communities and wildlife,” said Athan Manuel, program director at Sierra Club. “We will continue to fight back against their dangerous plans to subject our coasts to seismic blasting and expanded offshore drilling.”

“Seismic testing can be harmful and even fatal to the hundreds of thousands of dolphins, whales and other marine animals in the Atlantic,” said Angela Howe, legal director at the Surfrider Foundation. “This litigation is aimed at protecting the Atlantic Ocean from the destruction of seismic testing, which is the first step of proposed offshore oil drilling. We will continue to stand up to protect our marine environment and our ocean ecosystems for this and future generations.”

As of today, opposition and concern over offshore drilling activities in the Atlantic includes:

  • Governors of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire
  • More than 240 East Coast state municipalities
  • Over 1,500 local, state and federal bipartisan officials
  • An alliance representing over 42,000 businesses and 500,000 fishing families
  • All three East Coast Fishery Management Councils
  • Commercial and recreational fishing interests such as Southeastern Fisheries Association, Snook and Gamefish Foundation, Fisheries Survival Fund, Southern Shrimp Alliance, Billfish Foundation, and International Game Fish Association


In April 2017, President Trump issued an executive order to expedite permitting for harmful seismic airgun blasting, reversing the previous administration’s decision to deny all pending permits for such activity in the Atlantic.

The Obama administration concluded that the “value of obtaining the geophysical and geological information from new airgun seismic surveys in the Atlantic does not outweigh the potential risks of those surveys’ acoustic pulse impacts on marine life.”

NMFS issued permits to five companies on November 30, 2018. Before those companies can begin seismic airgun blasting, they must also receive permits from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

A recent economic analysis by Oceana finds that offshore drilling activities, including seismic airgun blasting, along the Atlantic threaten over 1.5 million jobs and nearly $108 billion in GDP, and would yield less than seven months’-worth of oil and less than six months’-worth of gas.

A May 2017 poll by Oceana, NRDC and the International Fund for Animal Welfare revealed that 76 percent of Americans support protecting marine mammals from threats, including injury and death resulting from offshore oil and gas drilling.

Read the complaint.

The endangered right whale is among the marine creatures threatened by seismic testing.
The endangered right whale is among the marine creatures threatened by seismic testing. (Edurivero / Getty Images)

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