Acoustic surveys for oil and gas deposits beneath the seabed are hailed as "the least intrusive way to explore the Earth's geology and its dynamic processes [that] impact human lives." So says the industry group that conducts the surveys. It offers this video to explain its work:
Environmental advocates see it another way. "Deafening seismic air gun blasts," as they describe the surveys, are a "blunt force weapon" that has been "disturbing, injuring and killing marine mammals and other wildlife around the clock." They offer this video to condemn it:
Now freshman U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, has stepped into the breach, siding with the industry group to amend the 45-year-old Marine Mammal Protection Act and make it easier to obtain government permits for seismic surveys in the Gulf of Mexico and other federal waters. Johnson's proposal, which would be called the Streamlining Environmental Approvals Act of 2017, is pending in the House with seven co-sponsors, including every Louisiana representative except Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans.
The bill, coming at a time when President Donald Trump is promoting offshore energy, seeks to recalibrate the balance between protecting the Earth's wildlife and, when it come to oil and gas exploration, exploiting its crust for economic gain. The issue is particularly important in Louisiana, where the oil and gas industry is a huge presence and the waters of and near the Gulf of Mexico are considered a treasure by commercial and recreational fishing interests alike.
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That Johnson would push the measure comes as little surprise. Although his west Louisiana 4th District bottoms out 50 miles short of the Gulf of Mexico, he's a member of the House Natural Resources Committee and its Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans. Oil and gas interests contributed $52,000 - more than any other industry -- to his first congressional campaign in 2016, and have given him $6,400 in the current election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Mike Johnson elected to Congress easily in north Louisiana
A state representative for two years, Mike Johnson is considered one of the most conservative members of the Louisiana Legislature.
He says regulations that evolved over the years to implement the Marine Mammal Protection Act interrupt U.S. Navy sonar operations, deter offshore oil and gas exploration and halt "many of the critical efforts aimed at protecting our coastline." In a statement upon introducing the legislation, he said: "My bill will remove government red tape keeping workers on our coast from moving forward with projects in a timely manner - freeing the market, creating jobs and boosting the economy."
Whether the law has indeed stymied Louisiana coastal protection, a grave issue in a state that is losing a football field of land every 100 minutes, is not so clear, however. Johnson's office, when asked to cite some examples, produced none. Nor did the Louisiana Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority, which is guiding a 50-year, $50 billion master plan to save the southern third of the state from disappearing into the sea.
"CPRA has been and continues to work with federal agencies, federal administration officials and the Louisiana congressional delegation to understand and resolve any issues with regard to the MMPA or other environmental laws and regulations that have the potential to delay, impair or foreclose CPRA's implementation of any and all restoration and protection projects," the agency said.
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The Marine Mammal Protection Act that Johnson seeks to amend generally forbids one to "hunt, harass, capture or kill" dolphins, porpoises, whales, seals, sea lions and walruses. Exceptions are allowed for "incidental take," which is the unintentional but foreseeable effect of certain activities such as military sonar and training, oil and gas work and geophysical surveys for energy and science projects.
For that, however, the government requires a permit, called an "incidental harassment authorization." Seismic surveyors need one if they expect to harm mammals while doing their job.
The surveyors compare their methods to ultrasound examinations in the medical profession, in that both technologies use sound to produce images. Here's how seismic surveys work:
A ship tows an array of chambers, filled with compressed air, across the water. Bursts of high-pressure energy are periodically released from the array, sending waves of sound to penetrate the rock layers beneath the seabed. Bouncing back to the surface, the sound waves are detected by hydrophones hung from a series of cables being towed by the ship. The sounds waves are recorded and used to map the Earth's crust.
Far from ravaging the environment, advocates say, the process is a big improvement. "Today's advancements in seismic technology, which can pinpoint the most fruitful areas for hydrocarbon potential, have contributed to reducing the overall environmental footprint associated with oil and gas exploration," says a paper from the International Associate of Geophysical Contractors.
Johnson says his bill would:
- set a clear framework for harassment permits to be granted or denied;
- impose a 120-day deadline for permit officials to make a decision on an application and, if they miss it, automatically approve the application;
- allow some permits to be extended if there has been no substantial change in the marine mammal population; and
- eliminate duplication between the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Rep. Mike Johnson
Organizations such as Oceana and the Center for Biological Diversity have long denounced seismic air gun blasting in general. The latter, citing a new environmental impact statement by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, says seismic surveys for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico will injure as many as 31.9 million marine mammals - including 80 percent of the sperm whales there.
"Seismic blasting harms everything in the water: Whales, fish, even the zooplankton that are the foundation of life at sea," said Michael Jasney, marine mammal protection director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement last month.
Oceana says dozens of towns, hundreds of public officials and the governors of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina have raised alarms about offshore drilling in general or seismic blasting in particular. During Barack Obama's administration, the federal government leaned away from oil and gas exploration, going so far as denying all pending applications for seismic blasting in the Atlantic Ocean on Jan. 6.
Since Trump succeeded Obama on Jan. 20, the government has a new view, one friendlier to oil and gas exploration. And Johnson, in Oceana's view, is on board with it. His bill, spokesman Dustin Cranor said, "would eviscerate core provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act" and "gravely weaken the legal standards" for issuing harassment permits.