The search for offshore oil begins with a boom.
Before the oil rigs arrive and the boring begins, operators need to fire intense seismic blasts repeatedly into the ocean to find oil deposits.
For decades, environmental rules that protected whales and other marine life from this cacophony have limited the location and frequency of these blasts — preventing oil companies from exploring, and therefore operating, off much of the nation’s coasts.
Now those safeguards are being dismantled.
The push to change seismic survey rules has not attracted the same public attention as the Trump administration’s interest in opening coastal waters to dozens of new drilling leases or downsizing protected marine areas. But it could have wide implications beyond enabling new oil operations.
Winding their way through Congress are two bills that supporters say would create jobs, reduce permitting delays and clear the way for naval activities and coastal restoration.
But environmentalists call them a thinly veiled oil industry wish list that would upend established protections and fast-track the permitting process for oil exploration off the Atlantic, much of Alaska and off California.
“So much legislation like this just goes under the radar,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., ranking minority-party member of the House Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans. “It’s a scorched earth effort right now across the whole of federal public policy to give things away to the oil and gas industry.”
The bills have passed committee and could go to a full vote any day.
They target core provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which regulates seismic blasts used to locate oil and gas. The noise, scientists say, can disorient and damage the hearing of whales and dolphins so badly that they lose their ability to navigate and reproduce.
The bills follow other subtle undoings that opponents have linked to prioritizing energy over conservation. President Donald Trump, in his budget proposal, had pushed to cut all funding for the Marine Mammal Commission, an advisory group that provides scientific expertise during the review process for proposed oil activities. (Funding was restored in last month’s budget deals.)
“It’s like burning down the jail, eliminating all the laws and then shooting the court and jury,” said Richard Charter, senior fellow at the Ocean Foundation. “This is a time of setbacks, but undoing the Marine Mammal Protection Act is one of the most damaging things that Congress could possibly do right now.”
Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., who introduced the Sea Act, rejected assertions that his bill was driven by oil. In a statement, his office said “there’s a large campaign of misinformation against the Sea Act filled with misleading rhetoric. The Sea Act makes absolutely no changes to the protections established by the (Marine Mammal Protection Act). Any suggestion otherwise is blatantly false.”
The changes would eliminate “cross-agency, duplicative regulations” that cause permitting delays, said his spokeswoman, Ainsley Holyfield. They were introduced after Johnson discovered “this very issue had halted coastal restoration efforts in Louisiana and naval operations off the coast.”
Johnson’s proposals are also included in a broader bill by House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., that “overhauls federal lands energy policy to promote expanded exploration, development and production of oil, gas and wind resources,” according to the House Committee on Natural Resources.
This push in Congress comes after Trump’s executive order last year, which reversed an Obama administration decision that denied six companies seeking permits to conduct testing in the Atlantic. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has called for seismic tests to get the new data needed for energy expansion.
“Allowing this scientific pursuit enables us to safely identify and evaluate resources that belong to the American people,” Zinke said. “This will play an important role in the president’s strategy to create jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign energy resources.”
The issue has been tricky for some Republicans, particularly those representing coastal districts where offshore drilling is unpopular.
Some have spoken up. Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., in a bipartisan letter last year, said seismic testing posed a direct threat to economies that rely on fishing, tourism and recreation.