Channel 2 Investigates

Lawsuit: Oil and natural gas testing can 'kill and injure' Georgia wildlife

The North Atlantic Right whale’s population has dwindled to nearly 400. Conservationists now fear plans to test for oil and natural gas off Georgia’s coast could lead to their extinction.

The Right whale gives birth to its babies off Georgia’s coast.

Federal regulators believed seismic testing's risk to wildlife was so great in 2017, they denied testing permits in the mid and south Atlantic. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has now cleared the way for such permits.

Alice Keyes with Georgia coastal advocacy group One Hundred Miles said NOAA-mandated safeguards like observers on vessels to watch for marine mammals and acoustic monitoring devices aren’t enough to protect the critically endangered Right whale and other marine life.

“There are no provisions related to sea turtles, there are no provisions related to shrimp, there are no provisions related to crabs and to other species that really do create a healthy marine environment,” Keyes said.

One Hundred Miles is one of several groups and local governments suing the federal government to stop companies from performing the controversial tests from Florida to Delaware. Five companies want to do the testing off Georgia's coast.

Seismic testing is done by shooting compressed air towards the ocean floor. The soundwaves bounce back and show a cross-section of what lies beneath, including possible deposits of oil or natural gas. Marine mammals, like whales and dolphins, also use soundwaves to communicate.

Republican Georgia lawmaker Don Hogan has lived on St. Simons Island for 52 years. He said he fears seismic testing’s impact on wildlife could keep tourists away.

“A lot of jobs depend on tourism,” Hogan said. “It’s just something I don’t think we need to take a chance with.”

Hogan sponsored a bipartisan resolution opposing the testing.

“We don’t really need the oil right now, and we don’t need the natural gas,” Hogan said. “We’ve got more natural gas than we’ll ever use.”

Dan Kish with the Institute for Energy Research agreed the U.S. is decades from needing to drill for oil or gas but said it’s important for us to know about possible energy reserves now.

It’s a matter of prudence. It’s a matter of preparing for the future,” Kish said.

Critics of seismic testing and drilling, including Hogan, were quick to recall the 2010 Deep Water Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest marine oil spill in history. But Kish said the Gulf is a success story of how energy, local economies and wildlife can coexist.

“The Gulf of Mexico produces over 40% of the seafood that we consume in the United States, and there’s more seismic out there than you can shake a stick at,” Kish said. “There’s been no evidence over many decades of doing it that any wrong has happened.”

But a 2017 study found seismic testing killed zooplankton, a major food source of Right whales and other ocean life. Researchers said testing could negatively impact ocean ecosystems.

Keyes said she fears that if the blasts don’t kill marine life, they would starve because their food sources, like zooplankton, would be killed. She said she’s committed to keeping the fight alive in court.

“We’re going to do whatever it takes to prevent seismic testing from occurring off of Georgia’s coast,” Keyes said.