A rig won’t drill off the Virginia coast without a new round of seismic surveys for potential oil and gas deposits.
That’s one of the few things about which there’s wide agreement among people who cry “Drill, baby, drill!” and those who counter “Never!”
It helps explain why there’s excitement in the oil industry and worry among environmentalists and many coastal tourism leaders about the Trump administration restarting a process this month that could lead to seismic tests off Virginia and other Atlantic states.
“We’re very positive about this administration’s progress on this front,” said Nikki Martin, president of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, the seismic industry’s trade group.
“This is really the start of what could be … many years of potential harm” to East Coast creatures ranging from the tiniest plankton to the largest whales, said Francine Kershaw, an ocean scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Atlantic’s seismic countdown began June 6, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a notice in the Federal Register. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service said it will take public comments for 30 days on requests from five companies to “take” marine mammals – disturb or harm them – as a side effect of using high-powered airguns in their seismic testing.
The noise blasts (about as loud as jet airplane at takeoff) penetrate deep beneath the ocean floor. The echos that bounce back become data for supercomputers that then help industry analysts provide estimates for how much oil and gas is trapped way down below.
Before the blasts are permitted, the surveyors need what’s known as an incidental harassment authorization. It sets limits on how they can operate, with the intent of limiting harm to dolphins, porpoises and whales, 34 species of which are known to frequent the area from Delaware to Florida in which seismic surveys are proposed.
President Barack Obama’s administration rejected the applications for authorization – one of its several “no” decisions when it came to Atlantic offshore exploration.
Trump made clear in an executive order in April, however, that he wants to put the coast back in play for potential drilling, and that starting seismic surveys is key. That’s why the seismic companies’ applications were reopened this month.
More than 125 local governments along the Atlantic – including the Virginia Beach City Council last week – have adopted resolutions opposing offshore oil and gas activity.
Beach council members, like elected leaders elsewhere, said they were concerned that the potential damage – to fishing, tourism and coastal real estate – outweighs the economic gain that oil and gas operations promise.
Some political leaders, like Gov. Terry McAuliffe, have said they see no reason why seismic surveying shouldn’t be allowed. They argue that it poses much less potential downside, from an environmental standpoint, than drilling. And they point to industry claims that technology advances since the early 1980s – when the last Atlantic surveys were run – likely would turn up much more accurate estimates of offshore oil and gas deposits.
The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s current estimate is that 4.6 billion barrels of oil and 38 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are “technically recoverable” along the U.S. Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf.
Will Ashby, a vice president of Houston-based TGS, one of the companies seeking an Atlantic seismic permit, called such estimates “early and dirty” by today’s standards. “It could be grossly wrong, either upward or downward.”
In any case, Ashby said, there’s significant interest in the East Coast. “It’s a coveted offshore area that the oil companies have been keen to explore for a long, long time.”
He said his company likely wouldn’t conduct a survey without commitments from two to four oil companies to purchase the data collected.
He and Jeff Mayville, global marine manager for Houston-based WesternGeco, another of the applicants, said it’s too early to announce any customers.
Last year, an executive of one of the other applicants, Spectrum Geo, said he doubted there’d be enough demand to support more than one major survey along the coast, as long as oil prices remain depressed.
Representatives of Spectrum Geo and the two remaining applicants – ION GeoVentures and CGG – didn’t respond to phone messages left last week. CGG’s French parent company filed for bankruptcy protection June 14.
There aren’t many long stretches on either side of the Atlantic basin that aren’t being explored for their oil and gas potential. Despite a major downturn in surveying because of an energy glut that’s driven down prices, there’s seismic testing under way off Europe, Africa, South America, Canada and Mexico.
Still, U.S. environmental leaders say this is no time to join in. They contend no amount of deposits is worth the risk of an oil spill, and they fear that allowing the surveys has the potential of creating unstoppable momentum for drilling.
And though industry officials say there’s been no evidence so far to suggest it, those in the anti-seismic camp contend that the surveys themselves can harm ocean ecosystems.
They say they’re worried that seismic surveys could greatly reduce the populations of some animals.
Along the East Coast, the North Atlantic right whale is the species about which ocean activists fret the most. About 450 of the slow-swimming whales are estimated to survive, and they’re already vulnerable to ship collisions and getting tangled in fishing nets. The concern is that the low-frequency sounds from seismic tests – which can travel hundreds of miles underwater – would permanently damage the whales’ hearing or disrupt their feeding and breeding.
“There’s a tipping point, where we can push these animals over the edge,” said Mark Swingle, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center’s director of research and conservation. He’s one of the speakers scheduled for a public event at 7 p.m. Monday on seismic testing. Called “Protecting Our Coast – Next Steps,” it will be held at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach.
Last year, 28 marine scientists, from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Duke University and several other universities, argued in a letter to Obama that the risks to the whales from seismic surveying should be enough alone to reject the testing.
Kershaw said a study released last week, from the other end of the ocean food chain, also should raise major concerns.
A group of Australian marine scientists wrote in the journal Nature that their tests of a single airgun off the island of Tasmania appeared to cause “significant mortality to zooplankton populations” and wiped out all the larvae of krill near the blasts.
“It really is a significant finding,” Kershaw said. “They form the base of ocean food chains.”
She said because arrays of dozens of airguns would be towed with each vessel involved in Atlantic seismic surveys, there’d likely be a far greater effect along the East Coast: “There would be no reason to think that it would not.”
Martin issued a statement late last week that raised questions about the study. She said her trade association is “troubled” by the study’s “small sample sizes,” among other things. “Both statistically and methodologically, this project falls short of what would be needed to provide a convincing case for adverse effects from geophysical survey operations.”
She contended that after “a decade of intense scrutiny by hundreds of scientists, there is still no scientific evidence that sound from seismic operations has negative population impacts on marine life.”