The Beacon

Obama Admin Moves Forward to Open the Atlantic Ocean to Seismic Airgun Blasts & Drilling

(Photo: NOAA)

Today in the nation’s capital, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) released the final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) on allowing seismic airgun testing in the Mid- and South Atlantic. While it promises a few protections here and there for marine life in the Atlantic, we can’t support the idea at the crux of the review: a plan to move forward with the use of seismic airgun testing for oil and gas drilling.

This is big news in the ocean conservation community in a number of ways. What does it mean for our efforts to keep seismic airguns out of the Atlantic?

BOEM’S EIS is a big step toward opening up the Atlantic to the seismic airgun testing, offshore drilling

Seismic airguns shoot intense blasts of compressed air and sound through the ocean and down into the sea floor. Large-scale surveys using these airguns help oil and gas corporations locate deeply buried pockets of oil and gas, and lead the way for offshore drilling. The Final Environmental Impact Statement examines the possible consequences and outcomes of this practice from an environmental standpoint.  Unfortunately, BOEM neglected to consider the newest and most accurate data in this report, which means this PEIS has underestimated numbers in terms of marine mammals that will be impacted.

Seismic airgun testing threatens both the marine animal and human way of life along the Atlantic

Seismic airgun testing  isn’t simply a method of surveying a coastal area for its energy potential. The blasts from seismic airguns are 100,000 times more intense than a jet plane engine and are emitted every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for weeks and months at a time.  It’s disruptive, destructive, and directly threatens the survival of marine creatures like dolphins, whales, and turtles.

Seismic airgun testing could also have a serious economic impact:  An industry study released ahead of the BOEM announcement said oil and gas development between 2017 and 2035 could create up to 280,000 jobs. While those in favor of seismic testing claim that oil exploration and drilling will propel coastal economies by offering  jobs, Oceana has reported that the potential danger it poses for commercial and recreational fisheries, as well as tourism and coastal recreation, can mean up to 730,000 jobs at risk in the blast zone.

BOEM is rushing toward seismic testing without considering its dangers

Today’s decision comes one week after more than 100 scientists called on President Obama and his administration to wait on new acoustic guidelines for marine mammals, which are currently in development by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, as well as approx. 50 members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, also called on President Obama to stop the use of seismic airguns last year.

 “In its rush to finalize this proposal, the Obama administration is failing to consider the cumulative impacts that these repeated dynamite-like blasts will have on vital behaviors like mating, feeding, breathing, communicating and navigating,” says our own VP for U.S. Oceans, Jacqueline Savitz. If the Obama administration considers these recommendations without taking recent and relevant science on seismic in account, the government will be making a rash decision in its rush to expand offshore drilling.

The protections of BOEM’s proposal aren’t up to par

BOEM included some safety measures for marine life in areas of planned testing, many of which Oceana pushed in our official comments, conversations and meetings.  They’ve included a closure area for endangered right whales as they travel up and down the Atlantic, would implement passive acoustic monitoring to detect animals like whales, as well as “adaptive management,” aka: they’ll provide more robust measures over time if needed. According to Oceana marine scientist Matthew Huelsenbeck, even those measures aren’t fully developed:

  • The government didn’t use updated acoustic guidelines to see how big the area of impact is when creating a closure area concept for the right whales
  • That closure area, as established now, doesn’t likely measure up to the huge scope of right whale travel and life in the Atlantic
  • Current passive acoustic monitoring measures aren’t sufficient: it will only prevent harm closer to the ship, but doesn't prevent repeated widespread disturbances to marine life

The federal government hasn’t developed adequate closure areas to protect the migratory corridor and nursery of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. It’s also failed to fully consider safer alternative technologies such as marine vibroseis, which is quieter than seismic airguns and has a lower impact on marine mammals. The government should be exploring alternative, cleaner energy options such as wind. We don’t need to turn the Atlantic into a blast zone.

This isn’t the end. We'll keep fighting.

Oceana is telling the Obama administration (as well as DOI Secretary Jewell) not to to proceed with seismic in the Atlantic. Stay tuned, we’ll have a petition up for you to join us in speaking out. 


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