Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
The Interior Department has signaled that it would reach a final decision early next year on whether to approve a draft environmental assessment that would help lay the groundwork for such testing along the coasts of seven states, from the northern tip of Delaware to central Florida.
The environmental and fishing groups argue that noise from the seismic blasts could disrupt the lives of marine animals that rely on sound to travel, feed, mate, and communicate and could lead to the beachings and deaths of whales.
So far the department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has received more than 29,000 public comments related to petitions opposing the seismic tests. “If they receive an environmental impact statement that says ‘go for it,’ they could start in 2013,” warned Matthew Huelsenbeck, a marine scientist for the environmental organization Oceana. “This is coming down to the wire.”
In its draft environmental assessment, the federal bureau predicts that seismic testing would result in some “harassments” of marine animals that could result in injuries or in a few cases, deaths. Still, in accordance with the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, the government’s plan calls for mitigation efforts like barring testing in certain areas during critical feeding and breeding periods of the endangered north Atlantic right whale.
Over all, the bureau’s assessment projects that impacts on marine life from the testing would be moderate.
Still, the agency has said that if it determines that the risks to wildlife are too great, the testing will not be carried out. “Protecting the environment is also what we do here, while safeguarding the development of America’s offshore energy,” said John Filostrat, a bureau spokesman.
The testing by geophysical companies would end a moratorium of more than two decades on oil exploration along the Eastern seaboard that President Obama decided to lift in 2010.
The tests are to be performed by a vessel that trails evenly spaced hydrophones in its wake as compressed air is blasted downward by the vessel’s airgun. The resulting sound waves, as high as 250 decibels, are far greater than the sound emitted by a jet engine upon takeoff, Oceana notes.
Once the sound waves hit the ocean floor, the hydrophones register echoes that reflect the densities of materials like gas and oil within the seabed.
In an e-mail, a representative of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said that surveying techniques had improved considerably in recent decades. The technology will allow the agency to update and refine its body of scientific information on the geology of the mid-and South Atlantic regions, informing its decision-making on oil and gas leasing, the agency spokesman said.
Environmentalists and commercial and recreational fishermen are nonetheless concerned about the intensity and frequency of the airgun blasts: they will be fired every few seconds around the clock and can continue for several weeks. The waves “reverberate around the ocean, and they create this massive acoustic footprint” – loud enough to travel thousands of square miles, said Mr. Huelsenbeck of Oceana.
The intensity and reach of the noise will not only drive some marine animals away and disrupt their feeding patterns, Oceana argues, but could damage or destroy their hearing. This is particularly worrisome for whales, which do not have sharp eyesight and
depend heavily on their hearing. Without it, “they can’t navigate, they can’t function,” Mr. Huelsenbeck said. “They keep contact with others based on their calls.”
Animals like whales decline slowly once their hearing is gone, making it difficult to link a death directly with the seismic tests, he added.
Oceana also points to seismic testing conducted in 2001 off Sakhalin Island in Russia that was associated with the departure of endangered gray whales from a primary feeding area.
In other cases, the connection between seismic testing and effects on animals is less certain, as with the mass beaching of 900 long-beaked common dolphins and porpoises in Peru this year. The government ruled out the sound waves as a cause, but a marine veterinarian and conservationist who examined many of the corpses found bleeding and fractures in the middle ear — the type of trauma that could result from intense noise.
Beyond environmental concerns, the ocean expanse also supports an annual $11.8 billion dollar fishing industry. Oceana has helped to mobilize opposition from fishing associations that worry that the sonic blasts could displace commercially valuable fish stocks or damage eggs and larvae.