Louder than a thunderclap outside your window. Louder than a jet engine 75 feet away. Louder than the Krakatoa eruption 172 miles from the volcano.
Conducted in the depths of the ocean, seismic testing blasts sound reaching 250 decibels — sound that, because of how audio waves behave in water, throttle the bodies and pound the senses of sea life, not only nearby but also thousands of miles away.
Despite the abundance of peer-reviewed science detailing the life-threatening hazards of seismic testing on marine species, the Trump administration is opening the mid-Atlantic region, including areas off the North Carolina coast, to this destructive practice. Now that NOAA has approved the testing plans, which allow five exploration companies to “incidentally harass” marine life, and even “unintentionally” kill them, the next step is for the federal Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management to issue the permits. Airgun blasting then can begin.
This could have dire impacts for North Carolina. The state has the second-largest estuary in the US. Fishing and coastal tourism industries generate billions of dollars in economic impact. And the 300 miles of barrier islands, including the Outer Banks, create one-of-a-kind ecosystems teeming with sea life.
“The authorizations are a step toward offshore oil and gas exploration off North Carolina’s coast and will negatively impact marine life and harm already stressed fisheries recovering from catastrophic storms,” said DEQ spokesperson Tricia Smith. The agency “will continue in opposing seismic testing off the North Carolina coast by all available means as BOEM considers issuance of the permits.”
It’s been eight years since the historic Deep Water Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Like Gov. Cooper and DEQ Secretary Michael Regan, most coastal local elected bodies and state officials from Maine to Florida are so spooked by the specter of such a catastrophe off their shores that regardless of political party, they too, oppose offshore testing and drilling.
“Seismic testing opens the door to offshore drilling, threatens marine mammals and our fragile ocean ecosystem,” said Gov. Roy Cooper in a prepared statement this week, “and is simply not worth the risk to North Carolina’s coastal communities, tourism economy and commercial fishing industry.”
Most coastal officials take this stance — except for the Carteret County Commissioners.
In 2015, the nine-member board voted to support then-Gov. Pat McCrory’s endorsement of seismic testing and offshore drilling. That same year, McCrory, strongly connected to the fossil fuel industry, received $2,000 in campaign contributions from David Holt of HBW Resources, an advocacy group based in Houston with North Carolina ties.
“We think we need to know what is out there so that in the future,” said Commission Chairman Mark Mansfield, according to meeting minutes from earlier this year, “whether it be for our grandchildren or great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren, if that ever has to be done, it needs to be known.”
When Gov. Cooper was elected in 2016, the prospect of offshore drilling fell out of fashion in the executive branch. But not among Carteret County Commissioners. Although Commissioner Robin Comer has said he “doesn’t want to see oil drilling out there,” neither he nor his fellow members have joined their coastal counterparts in opposing offshore drilling. (Brunswick County officials have taken a “neutral” stance.)
“They’re supporting someone who’s not governor anymore,” Randy Sturgill, Southeast senior campaign organizer for Oceana, which advocates for the sea and marine life, told Policy Watch.“There has been a massive outcry from citizens to take action. They are the only leaders supporting it. Carteret is out there all alone.”
According to meeting minutes, the commission has repeatedly deflected, saying that drilling is under federal jurisdiction. However, while states and local governments can’t ultimately approve or disapprove the testing, they can — and d0 — formally comment on the issue.
“It is your civic duty to represent the interests of our county,” Jess Hawkins III, a Carteret County resident and a biologist who served on the state Marine Fisheries Commission, told the board in April. “And resolutions from local governments do have bearing on the outcome of fisheries’ conservation decisions.”
Until “the time comes,” when testing or drilling is imminent, Comer said, “I do not need to hear any more about it.”
That time has arrived. None of the commissioners returned an email seeking comment or interviews from Policy Watch about the issue. But meeting minutes show the acrimony stewing between the commission, county residents, scientists and environmental advocates.
“The group that came in about no drilling, I would like to know how many of them walked, rode a bicycle or drove an electric car here,” Commissioner Bill Smith said.
Tim Page is a Trump supporter and executive director of Consumer Energy Alliance Southeast, an “astroturf” group working on behalf of the oil and gas industries. Without citing any evidence, Page told the board in May that offshore drilling would lower residential electricity bills in North Carolina. “Taking this opportunity off the table would also threaten our long-term national security and make us more vulnerable to overseas turmoil,” Page added.
He did not mention how Trump’s foreign policy decisions have heightened any such threats.
Consumer Energy Alliance Southeast is the regional affiliate for the national Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA), based in Houston. The CEA also contracts with HBW Resources, an advocacy firm for petroleum interests. Although the CEA is officially a nonprofit, its $2.5 million in annual revenue comes from the petroleum industry.
In 2016, the CEA spent more than $600,000 on marketing and propaganda, including a $500,000 to StoryPartners, LLC. The clientele of the Washington, DC, public relations firm include the American Petroleum Institute. (It also helped frame the “almond milk is not milk” argument that was used to support legislation approved by the the General Assembly earlier this year.)
The industry talking points — which are at best half-truths — seem to have worked on the Carteret County Commissioners. Chairman Mansfield said the boats carrying the seismic testing gear travel at eight miles per hour. “I looked up all the marine mammal life. They all swim faster than eight miles an hour.”
But that’s not the correct comparison. The boats, while they could collide with dolphins and whales, are not the primary issue. It’s the sound that travels must faster and farther than marine life can swim. The sea creatures are essentially trapped in an echo chamber.
Sturgill of Oceana told Policy Watch that citizen and environmental groups will continue to fight the testing and drilling.
“We will put up a fight until the ships go into the water and once they are in the water,” he said. “The battle for the Atlantic is on.”