Last year coastal residents packed a hearing and rally in opposition to offshore drilling and seismic testing. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)
A clash between the state Department of Environmental Quality and an offshore drilling company has escalated to the federal level, with the U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross potentially intervening.
WesternGeco  plans to shoot air guns every 10 seconds, 208 days a year, at 225 to 260 decibels — louder than a rocket launch  — from 19 miles offshore from the coast of Maryland, past North Carolina and further down the East Coast to 50 miles offshore of St. Augustine, Fla.
Although this part of the Atlantic Ocean is beyond states’ jurisdictional boundary of three miles, energy exploration companies still must seek state certification to determine if the proposals comply with their respective coastal management laws. If the state objects, as has North Carolina, the federal government can’t issue a permit. However, the US Department of Commerce ultimately rules on appeals and disputes.
“We remain vigilant in our opposition to activities related to oil and gas exploration off the North Carolina coast,” Secretary Michael Regan said in a prepared 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.”
In March WesternGeco requested a Consistency Certification from DEQ that would have allowed the company to explore for offshore energy deposits using air guns. The state’s Division of Coastal Management rejected  the application as being incomplete. NOAA overruled the state, saying the company’s application was sufficient.
Since then, several state agencies have reviewed the application and held public hearings on the coast about the proposal. DCM, the Division of Marine Fisheries and the Wildlife Resources Commission all objected to the proposal because of the likely damage to aquatic life, ecosystems and commercial and recreational fishing. DEQ also convened a scientific panel that concluded the company’s actions could not only kill fish but zooplankton, the foundation of the marine food chain.
Even though the company would be using air guns outside of North Carolina’s jurisdictional boundary, the sound and shock waves travel for miles. Fish and other aquatic life often swim farther asea and then return to the North Carolina coast, its bays and estuaries. The seismic testing could harm the sea life that makes North Carolina its home base, scientists concluded.
“We know that seismic airgun blasting is incredibly dangerous for marine life and is the first step toward offshore drilling in the Atlantic,” said Randy Sturgill , Oceana senior campaign organizer. “North Carolinians and the DEQ have spoken – seismic airgun blasting is not compatible with our coast.
“We won this fight before and we’ll win it again. We are going to do everything in our power to stop this unlawful, irreparable and needless harm.”
On July 10, WesternGeco appealed the state’s findings  to US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Among several claims, the company says that DEQ failed to describe how the proposal is inconsistent with state coastal policies. In fact, North Carolina has approved of similar surveys, albeit under a different administration.
From April 22 though June 16, 2015, when Donald van der Vaart was DEQ Secretary  and Pat McCrory was governor, the state found that four other geophysical surveys were consistent with the state’s coastal management plan.
However, President Barack Obama subsequently banned drilling in the mid-Atlantic for five years, and the seismic testing did not occur.
Both McCrory  and van der Vaart advocated  for offshore drilling, over the objections of thousands of coastal residents and governments. (The Carteret County and Onslow County commissioners are the only two local governments that have not publicly opposed these practices.) Coastal opposition , not only in North Carolina but up and down the Eastern Seaboard , to offshore drilling and seismic testing has strengthened, not waned since then.
The Trump administration supports offshore drilling. When Trump became president, he sought to overturn Obama’s ban in the Arctic and mid-Atlantic, but it’s been stalled by several legal challenges. Trump also recently announced rollbacks to offshore drilling safety rules.
Tricia Smith, spokeswoman for the Division of Coastal Management, said that even though offshore drilling in the mid-Atlantic is subject to the ban, the state’s permitting process still continues.
Commerce Secretary Ross can overrule the state’s decision only for matters of national security or if the request is consistent with the goals of federal Coastal Zone Management Act. WesternGeco, in its appeal, is arguing that “the national interests furthered by the survey outweigh any adverse coastal effects.”
Crystal Coast Waterkeeper Larry Baldwin  said that after Obama’s drilling ban, some people shifted their attention to other environmental issues. “People got too comfortable,” Baldwin said. “The current [Trump] administration, they’re just going to wait it out. It’s not a dead issue.”