On Friday, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) approved the use of seismic airguns to explore the seabed from Cape May to Cape Canaveral for oil and gas.
These sonic cannons are compressed airguns that get towed behind ships, using dynamite-like blasts to produce sound waves 100,000 times louder than a jet engine underwater every ten seconds. The waves travel through the water and through the ocean floor, bouncing back up at different rates to provide prospective drillers and researchers a better sense of where oil, gas, minerals, and sand lie beneath the waves.
It’s not a surprise that this is dangerous: even BOEM estimates that this practice will disrupt, injure, or kill millions of marine animals, including the most endangered whale species on the planet. It is less surprising that this risky tactic would be approved in large part to ferret out another source of fossil fuels, risking another BP disaster and emitting more pollution that causes global warming. It’s more surprising that this gambit is being entertained in an area that may not even have that much oil or gas.
BOEM’s record of decision follows 15 public meetings and over 120,000 public comments, and applies to an area of ocean twice the size of California from Delaware to Florida. “The bureau’s decision reflects a carefully analyzed and balanced approach that will allow us to increase our understanding of potential offshore resources while protecting the human, marine, and coastal environments,” Acting BOEM Director Walter Cruickshank said in a statement. It sets damage mitigation measures and other requirements for geological and geophysical survey activity to update 40-year-old data. Those measures include protocols like visual monitoring, shutdown procedures, seasonal guidelines, and geographic separation of simultaneous surveys.
Whale spotters would be on board the survey ships, though because sound travels so far in water, and many marine mammals use sound to communicate and detect food and predators, disruptions to whole ecosystems are almost certain.
Cruickshank made clear on a call with reporters that this decision does not specifically allow any survey activity right away, and it “does not indicate any decision as to whether or not this area will be available for leasing in the future.” There are applications to survey specific areas that BOEM and the Fish and Wildlife Service will take up and use these new measures to apply during NEPA analysis. Now they can start working on those applications, and any new ones, in the next few months. He anticipated surveys, if approved, would start next year.
Using seismic airguns for offshore resource prospecting is “like a sonogram of the earth,” according to Andy Radford, a petroleum engineer at the American Petroleum Institute. “You can’t see the oil and gas, but you can see the structures in the earth that might hold oil and gas.”
Yet seismic testing at any large scope would, according to BOEM’s own 2012 assessment, injure 138,200 marine mammals, lead to 13.5 million behavior disruptions, interrupt breeding patterns of threatened loggerhead turtles, and injure nine North Atlantic right whales. There are less than 500 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, and they became one of the planet’s most endangered whale species in part because they were considered the “right” whales to hunt: they swim close to shore, float when killed, and are very docile.
In February, over 100 marine scientists and conservation biologists sent President Obama a letter asking him to ensure they “use the best available science before permitting seismic surveys for offshore oil and gas in the mid- and south Atlantic.” Oceana, the organization that organized the letter, made clear today that this did not happen.
“We believe that the federal government should reinitiate the environmental review process to include the best available science before determining whether to move forward with permitting this dangerous activity off the East Coast,” said Claire Douglass, Oceana campaign director in a statement. “There’s simply too much at stake.”
There are alternatives to seismic testing in development. According to Matthew Huelsenbeck, a marine scientist at Oceana, seismic testing could get phased out by a less invasive method like marine vibroseis within 3–5 years.
Seismic airguns are already in use in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico.
This drive to allow companies to survey the Eastern Seaboard for these resources comes largely from Mid-Atlantic states that wish to open up their waters to offshore drilling. Cruickshank said during the BOEM call that Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina have contacted the agency with interest in developing their offshore resources, and this was one of the main reasons this region between Delaware and Florida was studied.
Aside from the fact that drilling for fossil fuels in this area will just dump more heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, there may not even be enough oil and gas in the region to justify such a harmful tactic to survey it further. Estimates from the 80s put the Atlantic reserves at just about seven years’ worth of the oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, and the gas supplies total what the rest of the country produces in 15 months.