‘Airgun’ Drilling In The Atlantic Wouldn’t Find Much Oil, But Could Harm Wildlife

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A long-awaited Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) released Thursday by the Interior Department sets the stage for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to start issuing permits for seismic exploration off the Atlantic Coast in an effort to locate oil and gas reserves. The controversial process, which uses high-pressure underwater seismic airgun blasts, has been opposed by a number of groups on grounds that it causes undue and unreasonable harm to marine life. Last week more than 100 marine scientists and conservation biologists sent a letter to President Obama and his administration urging them to “use the best available science before permitting seismic surveys for offshore oil and gas in the mid- and south Atlantic.” The letter calls on the administration to wait on new acoustic guidelines for marine mammals, which are currently in development by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Tommy Beaudreau, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said that the Interior Department’s plan closes certain areas for the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale and nesting habitat for sea turtles. “We’re really going to require and demand a high level of environmental performance,” Beaudreau said.

According to Beaudreau, the current seismic information from the area is decades old and used now-obsolete technologies — estimates from the 70s and 80s put the amount around a modest 3.3 billion barrels of oil. Currently the Gulf of Mexico produces about 1,250,000 barrels of oil a day according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. At this rate the proven reserves off the Atlantic would be the equivalent of just over seven years’ of Gulf oil. The area under consideration stretches all the way from Delaware to Florida and is twice the size of California.

The BOEM estimates from the 80s also put about 31.3 trillion cubic feet of gas off the East Coast. In 2012, the U.S. produced just over 24,000,000 million cubic feet of natural gas — meaning the supply off the East Coast is about what the rest of the country now produces in 15 months.

The EIS commences a five-year planning process that would open up the Atlantic to development. The area is currently off-limits to oil and gas exploration until 2017, but the next president could lift that restriction. On Monday, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell met with the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition for the first time. “Republican Govs. Pat McCrory (N.C.), Phil Bryant (Miss.), Robert Bentley (Ala.) and Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe (Va.) attended the meeting,” reported The Hill. “McAuliffe told reporters he would join the all-Republican coalition — making him the first Democratic governor to do so.”

In September, Oceana, an ocean protection organization, delivered more than 100,000 petitions opposing seismic airguns to Beaudreau. Around 50 members of Congress, including some Republicans, have also sent letters to the president opposing the seismic tests.

“With offshore drilling in the Atlantic at least five years away, shooting seismic airguns is an unnecessary insult to marine life and coastal economies,” Jacqueline Savitz, Vice President for U.S. Oceans at Oceana, said in the statement. “Our message is simple; do not turn the Atlantic into a blast zone — Stop Seismic Airguns. It is time for the Obama administration to stand up to Big Oil and say ‘no’ to seismic airgun testing in the Atlantic.”

Industry has submitted nine applications from oil and gas companies and seismic contractors, according to Beaudreau.

“Those applications propose literally hundreds of thousands of miles of seismic blasting,” writes Michael Jasny, Senior Policy Analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “And no doubt there are others waiting in the wings:”

“Because of the enormous distances sound can travel in the ocean, the dangerous noise from this activity cannot remotely be confined to the waters off individual states that encourage it. Some impacts — particularly on the great baleen whales — would extend many hundreds of miles, affecting states as far north as New England. Fish and fisheries could be affected for tens of miles around every seismic ship.”

Jasny sees airgun exploration as a gateway drug to offshore drilling — at an important juncture like this it can be helpful to look backwards to see what might be coming down the pike.

Pockets of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska 25 years ago can still be found among coastal rocks, according to a report presented at the American Geophysical Union meeting on Wednesday. The study aimed to find how long oil persists after a spill.

“To have oil there after 23 years is remarkable,” Gail Irvine of the USGS’s Alaska Science Center said. “We have these marked boulders whose movement we’ve been studying for more than 18 years. The oil itself has hardly weathered and is similar to 11-day-old oil.”

The Exxon Valdez spill, at nearly 11 million gallons, was the largest in U.S. history until 2010’s Deepwater Horizon disaster dwarfed it, spewing over 200 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico. If the proposed seismic tests find significant oil reserves off the Atlantic coast, the region will be subject to similar risks.