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April 29 (Reuters) - The U.S. Interior Department is still processing permit applications for companies to conduct seismic testing in the Atlantic - a precursor to drilling - despite shelving its plan to vastly expand offshore drilling, a spokeswoman said on Monday.
Atlantic coastal state lawmakers, businesses and conservation groups are adamant that Interior should not allow seismic testing - a process that often uses powerful air guns to map resources below the ocean floor - arguing the surveys hurt marine life, such as the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
Newly confirmed Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said last week the agencys five-year plan for oil and gas drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) would be sidelined indefinitely after a March court ruling blocked drilling in the Arctic and part of the Atlantic Ocean.
But Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is responsible for managing energy development on the OCS, continues to review the applications of a half-dozen seismic testing companies awaiting permits to test for oil and gas drilling potential on the Atlantic Ocean floor.
"BOEM is continuing to process the permit applications for conducting seismic surveys in the Atlantic, consistent with applicable law," BOEM spokeswoman Tracey Moriarty said in an emailed statement on Monday.
Five companies received a first round of permits last year when the fisheries office of the National Oceanic and Atmoshperic Administration issued permits that would allow for the incidental harassment of marine mammals with air gun blasts in a region of the Atlantic from Delaware to Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The last time seismic surveys were completed in the Atlantic was in the 1980s. The Obama administration banned seismic testing permits there in 2016 after it removed the Atlantic coasts from drilling in its five-year OCS proposal.
Gail Adams-Jackson, spokeswoman for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, a trade group representing seismic testing companies, said its members "remain hopeful" that BOEM will issue seismic testing permits soon - even if it remains unclear whether the Trump administration will pursue its plans to expand offshore drilling in the Atlantic.
"The more data that our government has to make informed decisions, the better off our country is in terms of our energy future," she said.
A federal district court judge in Charleston, South Carolina, asked the Interior Department on Monday to update him on the status of BOEM's seismic survey permit process. The South Carolina Republican attorney general and conservation groups including the Southern Environmental Law Center, filed a motion in that court earlier this year seeking an injunction to block BOEM from issuing final seismic testing permits.
"It makes no sense to proceed with seismic testing now. It's exposing our resources to very significant harm for no reason, when no one wants drilling or seismic here," said Catherine Wannamaker, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center. (Reporting by Valerie Volcovici in Washington and Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney)