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Administration OKs seismic tests that could harm dolphins, whales

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A whale spouts near oil rigs off the coast of California. (Photo by Al Seib | Los Angeles Times)

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration took a huge step toward future oil and natural gas drilling off the Atlantic shore, approving five requests from companies to conduct deafening seismic tests that could harm tens of thousands of dolphins, whales and other marine animals, according to studies.

In an announcement Friday, the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, declared that it issued final “incidental take” authorizations permitting companies conducting the surveys to harm wildlife if its unintentional.

“NOAA Fisheries is clear in the documentation related to (incidental take authorizations) that we do not expect mortality to occur as a result of these surveys,” said a spokeswoman, Katherine Brogan. But numerous scientific studies show acoustic sound can harm or potentially kill animals.

The decision is likely to further antagonize governors in states along the Eastern Seaboard who strongly oppose the administration’s proposal to expand federal oil and gas leases to the Atlantic. The authorizations clear the way for surveys across a stretch of ocean between Delaware and Florida.

Every state executive on the coast below Maine opposed the plan. Federal leases could lead to exploratory drilling for the first time in more than a half-century. Several Democrats representing those states in the House and Senate decried the authorizations.

In addition to harming sea life, acoustic tests — in which acoustic waves are sent through water 10 to 12 seconds apart to image the sea floor — can disrupt thriving commercial fisheries. Governors, state lawmakers and attorneys general along the Atlantic coast say drilling threatens beach tourism that has flourished on the coast in the absence of oil production.

Seismic testing maps the ocean floor and estimates the whereabouts of oil and gas, but only exploratory drilling can confirm their presence. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that soiled the Gulf of Mexico resulted from an exploratory drill. Another gulf disaster that looms almost as large has spewed oil for more than 14 years. The Taylor Energy spill of up to an estimated 700 barrels a day started when a hurricane ripped up production wells and could continue for the rest of the century, according to the Interior Department.

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