Feds Look To Allay Seismic Air Gun Testing Fears

OCEAN CITY — With the federal government inching closer to green-lighting the use of seismic air gun testing for natural gas and oil off the mid-Atlantic coast including Ocean City, the agency that would regulate the activity last week issued a statement attempting to clear up some of the myths associated with the potential dangers.

With a renewed interest in tapping potential oil and gas reserves off the mid-Atlantic coast, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is moving forward with  a proposal to allow private sector companies to utilize potentially harmful seismic air gun testing to determine what lies beneath the ocean floor. Seismic air guns essentially shoot a blast of sound into the ocean floor to determine the locations and scopes of potential oil and gas reserves off the coast.

In late July, BOEM released its final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for seismic air gun testing in the mid-Atlantic, opining the potential rewards outweigh any possible impact to marine life. While there are still several hurdles to clear before seismic air guns are blasted into the ocean floor off the coast of Ocean City and throughout the mid-Atlantic, the PEIS represents the federal government’s intention to move forward with the proposal despite an outcry of opposition from nearly all corners.

The environmental advocacy group Oceana has led the charge against seismic air gun testing from the beginning. When the PEIS was released in late July, a delegation of U.S. Senators and members of Congress from Maryland joined the fray with a strongly worded letter to President Obama urging him to put the brakes on the proposal.

Last week, BOEM’s Chief Environmental Officer William Brown released a statement attempting to clear up some of the misconceptions about seismic air gun testing and allay the fears of potential harm to marine life.

“It has been just over a month since BOEM released the PEIS and there’s been a lot of attention on both sides of this complex issue,” he said. “I wanted to take some time to clear up a few misperceptions about the bureau’s decision and what it means. As a scientist who has spent a good part of my career working in non-governmental organizations and in industry, I understand and appreciate advocacy. At the same time, I believe that everyone benefits by getting the facts right.”

Brown said the BOEM is legally obligated to do due diligence on any proposal that could impact marine life and has a solid environmental track record.

“BOEM has the legal responsibility to protect marine species and ecosystems from harm by the energy exploration and development which we regulate, and that is a responsibility which I embrace without reservation,” he said. “Since 1998, BOEM has partnered with academia and other experts to invest more than $50 million on protected species and noise-related research. The bureau has provided critical studies on marine mammals, such as researching seismic survey impacts on sperm whales and BOEM has conducted many stakeholder workshops to discuss and identify information needs on acoustic impacts in the ocean.”

In his report, Brown addresses piecemeal many of the concerns raised by advocacy groups. For example, opponents have asserted air guns used in seismic surveys will kill dolphins, whales and sea turtles and ruin coastal communities.

“To date, there has been no documented scientific evidence or noise from air guns used in geological and geophysical seismic activities adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities,” he said. “This technology has been used for more than 30 years around the world. It is still used in U.S. waters off the Gulf of Mexico with no known detrimental impact to marine animal populations or to commercial fishing.”

However, Brown did not entirely dismiss the potential for harm to marine life and said that is why BOEM is so diligent about advanced research and testing.

“While there is no documented case of a marine mammal or sea turtle being killed by the sound from an air gun, it is possible that at some point where an air gun has been used, an animal could have been injured by getting too close,” he said. “Make no mistake, air guns are powerful and protections need to be in place to prevent harm. That is why mitigation measures, like required distance between surveys and marine mammals and time and area closures for certain species are so critical.”

Detractors have opined that the air guns are 100,000 times louder than a jet and will deafen marine life, but Brown attempted to dismiss that notion in his report.

“An air gun is loud, although it is not 100,000 times louder than a jet,” he said. “Measured comparably in decibels an air gun is about as loud as one jet taking off. We do not know what a whale, dolphin or turtle actually experiences when it hears an air gun. Some whales appear to move away from the surveys, indicating they probably don’t like the noise, but bottlenose dolphins have often been observed swimming toward surveying vessels and ride bow waves along the vessels.”


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