A line of off-shore oil rigs in the Santa Barbara Channel near the Federal Ecological Preserve en route to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary in March 2015. President Donald Trump on Friday, April 28, 2017, signed an executive order to consider new offshore drilling around the country. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

THE MISSION of the National Marine Fisheries Service is to serve as a steward of national marine resources. Last Friday, the federal agency approved a plan to let five companies conduct seismic testing of the ocean floor off the mid-Atlantic coast. The testing provides information needed for offshore oil and gas drilling, but it also poses a serious threat to marine life.

Actual offshore ocean drilling would require additional authorization before it can proceed and may never happen. Nevertheless, seismic testing is a major step toward mapping the ocean floor and learning the location of any substantial energy deposits. It's a costly process that suggests that oil companies see a worthwhile opportunity that merits study.

Meanwhile, the states up and down the Atlantic Coast are out to stop seismic testing, not to mention the drilling that could come later. Like other Atlantic Coast states led by both Republican and Democratic governors, Virginia wants an exemption to future offshore drilling like the one granted to Florida in January by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

New Jersey has sued the federal government because it has not been granted the same exemption given to Florida.

The possibility of drilling aside, the current debate focuses on seismic testing and the damage it alone can do, which is plenty.

The process requires weeks or months of repeated and continuous seismic air gun blasts beneath the ocean surface to help determine the presence and size of oil and gas deposits. The government admits that the testing could harm hundreds of thousands of marine mammals, including dolphins, whales, sea turtles and fish. Even zooplankton at the very bottom of the food chain could be affected.

According to researchers, there are only 300 to 400 endangered North Atlantic right whales left, including fewer than 100 breeding females. Right whales are found primarily off the U.S. East Coast.

Under the approved plan, the testing companies have permission to "incidentally but not intentionally harass marine mammals" while conducting their surveys. In other words, these animals who depend on their sensitive hearing for survival could simply end up as collateral damage in the search for fossil fuels.

Let's also be clear that the Pentagon is vehemently opposed to offshore seismic testing and drilling because of possible interference with military operations. That's of particular interest in Virginia, home to Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world.

The states are hamstrung by the federal plan because the testing and drilling would occur on the outer continental shelf in federal waters, well beyond the three-mile limit to state jurisdiction. Ocean-based rigs would be out of sight from Atlantic Coast beaches, but state officials fear their coastlines could be fouled by oil from a blowout like Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

All of this raises the question of whether offshore drilling and related activity is a necessary component of the nation's energy policy, or rather a political football with possession going to the political party in power. President Donald Trump, a Republican, opened U.S. coastal waters to potential drilling in January, undoing an order by outgoing Democratic President Barack Obama in 2016 that closed them, which undid a 2008 order by Republican President George W. Bush to allow some offshore drilling.

Does the U.S. need the oil beneath the ocean? Not in the foreseeable future. In the past year, the United States overtook Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the world's largest crude oil producer at more than 11 million barrels per day. It is expected to hold the No. 1 position though 2019 as it closes in on 12 million barrels per day. Hydraulic fracturing or fracking, which is controversial in its own right, is a key contributor to that production.

This renewed interest in offshore drilling also comes at a time when the U.S. wants to lead the way on expanding use of alternative fuels and gradually wean itself from fossil fuels over the next century. That's important given the recently reported spike in global carbon dioxide emissions.

Excess production of oil, making it plentiful and cheap, is counterproductive to efforts to reduce the world's dependence on energy that pollutes and produces greenhouse gasses. 

The statewide economic importance of protecting military operations and tourism in Hampton Roads cannot be overstated. Virginia should be off-limits to offshore drilling and the dangerous seismic testing that precedes it.

Twitter: @FLS_Opinion

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