10 • 06 • 2020

Surfrider and Coalition Partners Succeed in Atlantic Seismic Litigation

By Angela Howe

Today in a positive ruling in Surfrider's Atlantic seismic litigation, Judge Richard M. Gergel resolved the case by ordering a dismissal without prejudice.  This effectively halts seismic blasting in the Atlantic Ocean, and industry is not expected to launch testing vessels this year.

The case was filed in South Carolina Federal District Court in order to oppose the federal permits issued to allow seismic testing off the Atlantic Coast. Surfrider Foundation originally filed a suit in December 2018 along with a coalition of environmental groups to challenge the extensive use of airguns that would cause injury and death to endangered species, including the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. The states of South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Maine also joined the case.

Seismic testing on the outer continental shelf is a precursor to offshore oil exploration and development. Here, five private companies made efforts to obtain necessary permits to conduct seismic testing on the Outer Continental Shelf, which requires Incidental Harassment Authorizations (“IHAs”) issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service of the United States Department of Commerce.  Today's Order provides resolution to a years-long legal and public battle challenging the government’s issuance of Incidental Harassment Authorizations. Those authorizations are required because the airgun bombardment of the sea floor affect federally protected species. The success in this litigation comes from keeping the seismic testing vessels out of the water off the Atlantic Coast and maintaining the coastal resources and habitat free of airgun noise and oil drilling.

Surfrider is thankful to our coalition partners and attorneys Steve Mashuda and Brettny Hardy at Earthjustice for making this major win possible. “These waters are far too important to sacrifice to Big Oil.  There’s no need to risk irreplaceable marine wildlife just for potential information about oil deposits that should never be drilled in the first place,” said Earthjustice Managing Attorney Steve Mashuda. “We’re elated that there will be no airgun blasting in the near future.  And we’ll continue to stand with Surfrider in the fight to permanently protect the Atlantic Coast from offshore oil drilling.”

Judge Gergel pointed out that the Trump Administration put a 10-year moratorium on oil-drilling from Virginia to Florida, and that the permits at issue in this litigation are set to expire on Nov. 30, 2020, without action by industry and government.  Government attorneys have acknowledged that there is no mechanism to extend the permits and industry has indicated that it is not feasible to launch testing vessels this year.

Plaintiffs will be able to re-open the litigation at any time within the next 60 days if there’s an unexpected effort to initiate seismic testing that was previously under challenge in this litigation.  The strong environmental coalition involved in this case will, of course, continue to monitor for seismic testing threats and be poised to activate to defend our coasts for many years to come.