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Seismic Testing to Begin in Atlantic Ocean in Push for Offshore Drilling

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A seismic survey vessel. CGG Veritas

The Interior Department announced it is moving forward with seismic surveys in the Atlantic Ocean following President Donald Trump's executive order last month to aggressively expand offshore drilling in protected areas off the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.


Six permit applications by energy companies—ones that were rejected by the Obama administration—are being reviewed by the department.

The oil and gas industry has long pushed for seismic surveys used to search for oil and gas deposits deep below the ocean's surface.

However, environmental groups warn that the surveys are an extremely loud and dangerous process.

"Seismic airguns create one of the loudest manmade sounds in the ocean, firing intense blasts of compressed air every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for weeks to months on end," Dustin Cranor, Oceana's senior director of U.S. communications, told EcoWatch. "The noise from these blasts is so loud that it can be heard up to 2,500 miles from the source, which is approximately the distance from Washington, DC to Las Vegas."

"These blasts are of special concern to marine life, including fish, turtles and whales, which depend on sound for communication and survival," Cranor said. He noted that the government's own estimates show that seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic could injure as many as 138,000 marine mammals like dolphins and whales, while disturbing the vital activities of millions more.

Furthermore, Greenpeace said "pursuing this development stands at cross-purposes with the nation's necessary and rapidly accelerating move away from fossil fuels, and with previous commitments to address global climate change."

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's Capt. Paul Watson explained, "One of the major threats to the survival of cetaceans, is noise pollution. More seismic testing and military LFS testing will result in more strandings. This decision equates to a death sentence for thousands of whales and dolphins."

Seismic data has not been gathered in the mid- and south-Atlantic regions, from northern Florida to Delaware, for at least 30 years.

The Interior Department said that the surveys are needed to update information about the Outer Continental Shelf that was gathered more than three decades ago, "when technology was not as advanced as today."

The Associated Press reported that any new drilling activity is expected to be limited to the coasts of Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia.

Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke said that the surveys will help "a variety of federal and state partners better understand our nation's offshore areas ... and evaluate resources that belong to the American people."

Industry groups applauded the department's decision to review the permit applications. "There has been no documented scientific evidence of noise from these surveys adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities," Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, said.

Trump's executive order was aimed at rolling back President Obama's permanent ban on new offshore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.

"Renewed offshore energy production will reduce the cost of energy, create countless new jobs, and make America more secure and far more energy independent," Trump said before signing the document last month.

But Greenpeace said that Atlantic drilling would threaten the region's vibrant fishing and tourism industry, warning that "a spill equivalent to the BP Gulf oil disaster could coat beaches stretching from Savannah to Boston."

Additionally, Cranor pointed out that more than 120 East Coast municipalities, 1,200 elected officials, and an alliance representing 35,000 businesses and 500,000 fishing families have publicly opposed offshore drilling and/or seismic airgun blasting.

"These individuals and groups understand that nearly 1.4 million jobs and more than $95 billion in gross domestic product are at risk if dangerous offshore drilling activities occur in the Atlantic Ocean," Cranor explained.

Conservation groups have filed a lawsuit against President Trump, challenging his decision to reverse President Obama's ban.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.