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Seismic tests for offshore drilling could hurt NC marine life, coastal agency says

North Carolina’s coastal agency says seismic surveys used for oil and gas exploration could hurt marine life like this humpback whale breaching off the state’s coast.
North Carolina’s coastal agency says seismic surveys used for oil and gas exploration could hurt marine life like this humpback whale breaching off the state’s coast.

A state agency is asking for more information about proposed seismic tests in advance of possible oil and gas drilling off North Carolina’s coast, saying new studies show they might harm marine life.

The state Division of Coastal Management said Friday that it has asked four companies for more information about the tests, which use loud, underwater blasts of sound to probe the ocean’s floor for deposits.

In 2015, during the administration of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, the state concluded that seismic tests proposed by the four companies were consistent with state coastal policies.

Now, under the administration of anti-drilling Democrat Roy Cooper, the state says new studies show the tests may pose “significant impacts” on marine fisheries.

Environmental advocates and many scientists say seismic tests can cause hearing loss and disrupt feeding and mating of marine mammals such as whales. The exploration industry maintains that no harm to ocean life has occurred in decades of use in the Gulf of Mexico.

A 2014 federal environmental study acknowledged that seismic tests in the Atlantic could affect thousands of animals. The tests could harm up to 32,000 dolphins and pilot whales a year and disturb up to 3.1 million more animals, the study found.

North Carolina’s coastal management agency says it has told each of the companies that want to conduct surveys – Spectrum Geo, GX Technology, MCNV Marine North America and TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Co. – to offer more information proving they won’t be harmful. The companies are also seeking federal permits.

Cooper and environment Secretary Michael Regan submitted comments to the federal government in August opposing offshore drilling, saying the industry would threaten the coastal environment but offer little economic benefit.

“New studies published after the state’s initial review indicate seismic testing may have even more significant impacts on North Carolina’s coastal marine life,” Braxton Davis, director of the state’s coastal management and marine fisheries divisions, said in a statement. “Based on the new studies, we believe the proposed seismic testing could severely impact North Carolina’s commercial and recreational fisheries, and we are requesting more information for review by state officials and the public.”

A 2017-2022 drilling plan issued last year by the Obama administration included no lease sales for drilling in the Atlantic.

But President Donald Trump issued an executive order in April that would overhaul the federal drilling strategy and could include drilling off the Southeast coast.

North Carolina’s environment department held August hearings in Wilmington, Morehead City and Manteo on the federal offshore drilling plan that nearly 500 people attended. The state says 92 percent of those who spoke at the hearings opposed drilling.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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