US allows sonic blasts in East Coast energy search, angering environmentalists (+video)

The Obama administration's decision to allow energy companies to conduct sonic testing along the East Coast renews the fierce debate pitting protection of marine life against the goal of energy security.

By , Staff writer

The Obama administration's announcement Friday that it will allow oil and gas companies to apply for permits for underwater seismic testing off the Atlantic Coast set off familiar and bitter volleys between environmentalists and industry advocates.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) released a proposed five-year framework for permitting seismic airgun surveys from Delaware Bay to the tip of Cape Canaveral, areas where offshore drilling has been outlawed for more than 30 years.

Industry leaders applauded the measure as helping secure US energy independence, while environmentalists predict that the sonic blasts used in testing will have a devastating impact on marine life.

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Sonic waves powerful enough to penetrate rock can be extremely damaging to marine life, says biologist Regina Asmutis-Silvia, who serves as executive director for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, an advocacy organization based in Plymouth, Mass. [Editor's note: A previous version of the story mistakenly omitted the word dolphin from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation.]

“The major issue for marine mammals is that they are acoustic animals," she adds. "They rely on sound for finding food and for finding each other."

Seismic surveys give scientists and industry a view of what lies underneath the seafloor by blasting a sonic wave through the ocean, which penetrates the geological structures underneath the seabed. The sound bounces back up to sensors, which are towed underwater. This technology provides a rough sketch of the different layers of strata in the seabed. While it cannot definitively show any oil or natural gas, it can reveal the types of structures that tend to hold such energy stores.

“From an energy and national security standpoint, [allowing offshore exploration off the coast of the Atlantic] should be a no-brainer given everything that has happened in the Middle East in Syria, Libya, and Iraq," says Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute (API), a national trade association for the oil and natural gas industry based in Washington, D.C.

“If we’re producing oil here, it sends a message to the world and to the world market that the United States is intent on continuing to be an energy superpower," he adds.

Currently, the only offshore drilling permitted in US waters is in the Gulf of Mexico, which is a very “mature field,” Mr. Milito says.

But the sonic sounds utilized by this technology reverberate through the ocean for thousands of miles, Asmutis-Silvia says. “We had some whales off the coast here in Massachusetts that were singing and stopped because of seismic testing happening 200 kilometers away,” she says. [Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misquoted the distance at which seismic testing caused a pod of whales to stop singing.]

Such threats are of particular concern for the already critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. These 70-ton behemoths – of which fewer than 500 remain – can live at least 50 years and are slow to reproduce. Their migration path takes them up and down the eastern seaboard each year and they depend on the sanctuary of the Florida and southern Georgia coastline to raise their calves.

In a bid to avoid damage to wildlife, the BOEM’s Record of Decision outlines several mitigation practices that companies petitioning to conduct seismic testing must adhere to. These include:

• Vehicles must attempt to avoid marine life and maintain the 500-meter (547 yards) minimum distance from the North Atlantic right whale currently mandated by the Endangered Species Act.

• Seismic surveying will be prohibited if any marine mammals are detected within a 500-meter zone surrounding the source of the airgun. If an animal enters the zone, operators must cease testing until the area has been clear for 60 minutes.

• Simultaneous tests cannot occur within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of each other.

“Although a mitigation measures cannot be effective 100 percent of the time, these measures undoubtedly will contribute to species protection, and they will be refined as environmental impacts are evaluated in environmental review for site-specific authorizations,” Acting Director Walter Cruikshank wrote in an addendum to the BOEM Record of Decision.

Still, Industry leaders worry that the mitigation measures outlined by the OEMB are unduly restrictive and will unnecessarily delay research that is vital to energy and national security, says API's Milito.

While there is no guarantee that there is any oil in the area in question, exploration in other parts of the Atlantic – off the coast of Canada, and West Africa – have yielded extensive stores of both oil and natural gas, he adds.

If seismic testing confirms that assumption, oil companies would have to submit to extensive environmental review as outlined by the National Environmental Policy Act before any drilling could take place.

Following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, which dumped nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the federal government added a series of regulatory hoops that fossil-fuel companies must navigate to prove that they are prepared to handle a potential breach. The industry has also imposed some regulatory controls designed to minimize the risk of such a disaster.

But environmental activists question whether enough has been done to prevent another catastrophic event, says David Pettit, senior attorney in the Santa Monica, Calif., office of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.

“There have been some modest improvements in the way that the federal government regulates offshore drilling, but the same procedure [employed on Deepwater Horizon] is still in place and a lot of the oversight is still left to industry.”

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