Environmental groups along with coastal cities and businesses are suing the Trump administration for giving the green light to underwater seismic testing for oil and gas, because of potential harm to whales, dolphins, and other marine animals and the local economy.

In two lawsuits, filed Dec. 11 in U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, the groups allege that in issuing “incidental harassment authorizations” late last month, the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The first two of those statutes prohibit the harassment, harming, or killing of endangered species without specific authorization. NEPA requires that environmental concerns, including endangered species protections, be taken into account in federal decision making, and the APA lays out rules for how the government issues regulations and communicates with the public.

Seismic testing is done by vessels towing air guns that emit acoustic energy pulses into the sea floor repeatedly over long periods of time. The returning sound waves are used to create maps of oil and gas reservoirs beneath the sea floor.

One of the lawsuits was filed by a coalition of nine environmental groups. The second complaint was filed separately by 16 coastal municipalities in South Carolina who were joined by the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.

‘Twisted the Law in Knots’

“If you’re a seismic company and you want to propose harming marine mammals in the course of your activity, you have to make sure that that activity falls within the safeguards that Congress established before it can authorize that harm,” Michael Jasny, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Bloomberg Environment.

The National Marine Fisheries Service “barreled through every one of these safeguards, twisted the law in knots in order to give these seismic companies what they wanted,” Jasny said.

“It didn’t consider the impact of all of these authorizations taken together, but instead treated each company’s seismic testing as though it were taking place in a vacuum, as though none of the other seismic tests were taking place,” Jasny said. “It’s as if the government were approving five new coal plants and assessing the impacts on air quality one by one, as though none of the others existed. It’s illegal and it runs counter to both the law and common sense.”

“Right whales will keep spiraling toward extinction if we don’t stop these deafening blasts and the drilling and spilling that could come next,” Kristen Monsell, ocean program legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “That’s why we’re taking the administration to court.”

Jennie Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the agency as a rule doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

However, “we’re not authorizing mortality in this,” Lyons told Bloomberg Environment.

Major Step Toward Drilling

No data have been produced to suggest that seismic tests have harmed populations of marine species, Gail Adams, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, told Bloomberg Environment. Supporters of testing also say it is used for locating areas to place offshore wind turbines.

Environmentalists say the tests for wind turbines cover a much smaller footprint and are many times less powerful than the tests for oil and gas. They also say it is difficult to prove harm to marine mammal populations, especially harm that doesn’t kill the animals outright but impedes such behavior as feeding.

The initial testing approval represents a major step toward allowing oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.

The five companies that were granted “incidental harassment authorizations"—ION GeoVentures, Spectrum Geo Inc., TGS NOPEC Geophysical Co. ASA, WesternGeco LLC, and CGG SA—can’t start testing until they get permits from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Those permits are expected to be given soon. The lawsuit can’t stop BOEM from issuing the permits, though the environmental groups could seek an injunction once they are granted.

The testing approval lines up with the Trump administration’s goal of vastly expanding offshore oil and gas drilling. The Interior Department’s draft proposal for 2019-2024 opens lease sales in 98 percent of the federal offshore.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told Senate and House committees the expansive proposal is just a first step to kick start discussion. The administration also said it only wants to measure how much oil and gas resides in U.S. offshore waters, and that the proposal doesn’t necessarily signal that the entire 98 percent will be made available to drilling.

The parties to the environmental groups’ litigation include NRDC, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Oceana, the Sierra Club, and local groups.

The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg Environment is operated by entities controlled by Michael Bloomberg.

Standing

The South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce was joined in its lawsuit by the city of Charleston and more than a dozen coastal municipalities.

Frank Knapp Jr., president of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, told Bloomberg Environment that the local businesses and municipalities filed separately in case the environmental groups claims were challenged on legal standing.

“Our standing comes from the economic impact that it would have on our coast,” Knapp told Bloomberg Environment. The South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce claims more than 5,000 members statewide.

The seismic testing will cause commercial fish catches to drop by up to 80 percent and harm scallops, squid, and crabs, he said. The activity also will cause economic harm to the coastal recreational and tourism industries, he said.

The cases are S.C. Coastal Conservation League v. Ross, D.S.C., No. 2:18-cv-03326, 12/11/18 and Beaufort v. Nat’l Marine Fisheries Serv., D.S.C., No. 2:18-cv-03327, 12/11/18.