Intense seismic sound blasts are next big concern for anti-drilling advocates
By Dave Mayfield
Photo courtesy of Brian Lockwood: A humpback whale shows its head while swimming at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on Dec. 2, 2015.
Opponents of oil and gas drilling along the East Coast breathed sighs of relief last week when federal officials announced that the Atlantic had been dropped from the next offshore leasing plan.
Now, anti-drilling advocates are focusing on what they see as another threat: a slew of applications for seismic surveys that could greatly increase the estimates of hydrocarbons beneath the ocean floor.
“Mr. President, You’ve Spared the East Coast From Drilling – Now End Seismic Blasting,” reads the headline on a column written for The Huffington Post by an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Environmentalists say the intense sound blasts from airguns used in seismic surveys threaten whales, dolphins and other creatures.
Some also are worried about what the tests might find.
The oil and gas industry widely believes that reserves along the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf are greatly underestimated. New surveys could help them make a convincing case for that – and perhaps persuade a future administration to allow drilling along the Atlantic.
“We need to remove this from the table. We have a responsibility to remove this from the table,” said Jay Ford, executive director of Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper, one of the leaders in Virginia’s anti-drilling movement.
Even if the surveys don’t lead to an increase in estimates, they help create an “institutional momentum” for oil and gas exploration, Ford argued. “It really just about guarantees that this issue will be coming up again.”
In the Atlantic, eight companies have been seeking permits for what’s known as “geophysical exploration” – with some applications dating back two years. The survey area would extend from Delaware to central Florida, and the grid lines run by the ships of as many as seven of the companies would overlap in some places.
The permit rush was spurred when the governors of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia asked federal officials to include their states in the 2017-2022 offshore leasing program.
When the initial draft of that program came out early last year, the companies' gamble looked promising: All four states were in. But the bets suddenly looked a lot riskier last week when the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management yanked the entire Atlantic from the program.
“Now that that’s been taken off the table, I fear the incentive has certainly been lessened a great deal” for seismic surveys, said Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association. He said the contractors typically sell the data their ships gather to large energy companies. With the possibility for an Atlantic lease pushed out to the next five-year program, at the earliest, “they may very well not have anyone to sell their information to.”
Walt Rosenbusch, chief operating officer for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, said none of the companies has notified him that it intends to withdraw its permit application, however. There will continue “to be interest in acquiring new data to better understand the resource potential in the Atlantic,” he said.
Rosenbusch cited another coastal area, the eastern Gulf of Mexico off Florida, that’s off-limits to drilling. Yet there, he said, oil companies have purchased data gathered by survey ships in order to size up potential reserves.
“They don’t think in terms of just one year, they don’t think in terms necessarily of five years – they think in terms of 10 years,” he said.
In the Atlantic, it's been more than 30 years since the last seismic surveys for oil and gas were done. The hydrophones used to measure the signals that bounce back from the ocean floor and the computers and software that help process them into imagery and databases have improved significantly since then.
That’s why industry officials are eager to see survey ships running the Atlantic again. They’re almost certain the detective work will cause estimates of potentially recoverable reserves to grow. Currently, the government estimates those reserves at 4.6 billion barrels of oil and 38 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
One thing that hasn’t changed about the seismic specialists is their reliance on powerful airguns – typically, several dozen in an array towed behind the ships. The low-frequency sound explosions, which come as often as 10 seconds apart, can penetrate thousands of feet beneath the sea floor and help energy explorers plot out where fossil fuels are buried.
Environmentalists say the pulses also can disorient marine mammals and damage their hearing. Thirty-nine species of the creatures live along the U.S. East Coast, including a half-dozen listed as endangered. The most imperiled is the North Atlantic right whale. It's been estimated that only about 500 of them remain.
The activists are backed by many prominent ocean scientists, 75 of whom signed a letter to President Barack Obama in March of last year warning of “an enormous environmental footprint” that would be left by seismic airgun blasts.
“For blue and other endangered great whales, for example, such surveys have been shown to disrupt activities essential to foraging and reproduction over vast ocean areas,” they wrote. “Additionally, surveys could increase the risk of calves being separated from their mothers, the effects of which can be lethal, and over time, cause chronic behavioral and physiological stress.”
The industry rejects assertions that what it does is harmful.
“There really is no scientific evidence that proves that sound from seismic surveying actually damages marine life,” said Gail Adams, a former Interior Department official who now serves as vice president and spokesperson for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors. “There is a potential there, so we always talk about ‘potential.’ ”
One of the seismic companies, Houston-based GX Technology, had been planning to start Atlantic surveying in late 2014, with one of its ships operating out of Norfolk. Its application and those of several others have dragged out as they await a key late-stage approval – what's known as an IHA, or "incidental harassment authorization," from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Essentially, an IHA gives the go-ahead to "take" – basically, disturb or injure – marine mammals. Under federal law, the operation must have no more than a "negligible impact" on species.
If all of the surveys applied for in the Atlantic are carried out, the scientists said in their letter to Obama, there would be millions of disruptions of marine mammals.
The Marine Fisheries Service decision has been delayed for several reasons. It's been reviewing new research on seismic testing's effects on some whales and factoring in potential changes in government guidelines for protecting certain species of turtles, sharks and other creatures.
A Fisheries Service spokeswoman declined to predict when the agency will conclude its review. Rosenbusch said he has been told a decision could come by April.
If the agency does approve the IHAs, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management still must do a final review before issuing a permit. The bureau, in its own 2014 environmental impact statement on Atlantic seismic testing, concluded that it would have "moderate" effects on marine mammals and sea turtles and "minor to negligible" effects on fish and other sea creatures.
Still, Claire Douglass, a campaign director for the environmental group Oceana, said her organization would push the bureau to reverse its sister agency, if the Fisheries Service issues the IHAs.
The threat to the right whale alone should be enough to warrant denial, she said. Plus, she argued, there is no urgency for seismic surveys in the Atlantic, given the global glut of oil and gas.
Another possibility is a legal challenge. Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Individual Harassment Authorizations have spurred lawsuits elsewhere.
Weaver said claims that the Atlantic's oil and gas deposits may be far greater than are now estimated failed to persuade the elected bodies of dozens of coastal communities that adopted resolutions against drilling. Many of those same communities took stands against seismic blasting as well, she noted.
"What we've argued," she said, "is that it doesn't matter how much is out there. It's not worth the risk."
Dave Mayfield, 757-446-2341, firstname.lastname@example.org