Environmentalists cite federal report as evidence the blasts harm marine life. Oil industry officials dispute findings.
Environmentalists and oil industry representatives are sparring over a new federal report that says high-powered air gun blasts used to search for oil in the Gulf of Mexico can harm whales and other sea creatures.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which regulates oil and gas activity in the Gulf, issued the preliminary environmental impact statement about two weeks ago as part of a settlement in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups.
Environmentalists cite the report as proof the oil companies’ seismic testing harms marine life. Oil industry representatives counter the practice is safe and that environmentalists have exaggerated the federal report’s findings.
“Seismic blasting harms everything in the water: whales, fish, even the zooplankton that are the foundation of life at sea,” Michael Jasny, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project, says in a news release issued jointly by groups that filed the lawsuit. “To permit seismic testing in view of these troubling findings would be to retreat from conservation. It sends a message to the Gulf that, even after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, oil industry profits trump our coastal environment.”
The federal analysis finds that as many as 31.9 million marine mammals in the Gulf will be injured and harassed by oil and gas seismic surveys, the Center for Biological Diversity says. That includes 80 percent of the Gulf’s endangered sperm whale population, estimated at 763.
Sperm whales will experience as many as 760,000 harassing exposures to air gun blasting over the next decade, the group says. The report estimates that seismic blasting would cause as many as 588 injuries to the Gulf’s Bryde’s whales, of which only 33 remain.
The American Petroleum Institute, a major oil industry lobbying group, said the federal agency’s report is based on a “flawed interpretation of scientific data.”
“It also disregards the fact that the natural gas and oil industry has been conducting safe, effective seismic research in the Gulf of Mexico for decades with effective mitigation measures that provide strong protections to marine life,” Andy Radford, the industry group’s senior offshore policy advisor, said in a prepared statement. “We urge BOEM to consider these important facts as this process continues.”
The regulatory agency has not taken any action as a result of the report. However, its recommendations offer a wide range of alternatives, from doing nothing to banning seismic surveys in the Gulf during certain times or in specific areas.
Neither side is satisfied, with environmentalists saying they want the agency to pass stricter regulations and industry officials pledging to lobby the Trump administration to take some of the most restrictive options off the table.
The International Association of Geophysical Contractors, another industry group, said the federal report “jeopardizes one of the most important regions for energy resources, the U.S Gulf of Mexico.”
For nearly eight decades, geophysical surveys have been conducted in the Gulf, including extensive activity for the past 50 years, the group says in a written statement.
“There is no documented scientific evidence of this activity adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities,” the group says. “Geophysical surveys have taken place alongside multiple industries, including successful fishing and tourism industries, and within a thriving ecosystem with an abundance of marine life.”
The action comes as the Trump administration considers opening additional federal waters to drilling. Federal agencies are reviewing at least five requests from oil companies for permits to conduct seismic testing off the Atlantic Coast.
Seismic exploration surveys use arrays of high-powered air guns mounted aboard a boat to blast sound into the seafloor. Sensors record the reflected sound, and scientists use the data to map structures that could contain oil and gas.
Environmentalists say the blasts can reach 250 decibels and travel hundreds of miles underwater. By comparison, a jet engine taking off produces 140 decibels.
The blasts can cause hearing loss in marine mammals, disturb essential behaviors such as feeding and breeding over vast distances, mask communications among whales and among dolphins, and reduce catch rates of commercial fish, the Center for Biological Diversity says.
“Flooding the ocean with noise from seismic surveys is a devastating one-two punch for the ocean,” said Steve Mashuda, an attorney with Earthjustice. “At a time when our oceans are already showing the stresses of climate change, it just doesn’t make sense to harm whales, dolphins and other ocean wildlife in service of drilling for more oil we can’t afford to burn if we’re going to avoid the worst harms from climate change.”
But oil industry groups note the sound pressure is lower under water, the blasts are short and intermittent, and noise levels are about the same as other natural and man-made sounds, including wind and wave action, rain, lightning strikes and shipping.
“Our industry remains committed to improving the scientific understanding of the impacts of our operations on marine life,” Radford said. “Seismic surveying in the Gulf of Mexico is a critical part of safe offshore energy development that is necessary if we are to continue to harness our nation’s energy potential for the benefit of American energy consumers.”
-- Executive Editor Keith Magill can be reached at 857-2201 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@CourierEditor.