Offshore Seismic Air Gun Testing Raises Concerns

OCEAN CITY — An ongoing effort to derail proposed plans to allow seismic air gun testing off the mid-Atlantic coast and up and down the eastern seaboard from Delaware to Florida continued this week.
With a renewed interest in tapping potential oil and gas reserves just off the mid-Atlantic coast, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), an arm of the Department of the Interior, is considering allowing private energy companies to utilize seismic air gun testing to determine what lies beneath the ocean floor.
However, a grassroots effort to derail the proposed use of seismic air guns, which shoot loud and repeated blasts of sound into the ocean floor to determine the location of oil and gas reserves, is gaining momentum with hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens signing petitions to block the potentially harmful survey technique. Public forums on the issue are being held in Atlantic coast states from New Jersey to Florida. The latest public forum examining the potential dangers off Maryland’s Atlantic coast including Ocean City and Assateague was held at the National Aquarium in Baltimore on Thursday night.
Seismic air guns shoot blasts of sound into the ocean floor. Each is 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine. According to the federal government’s own report, the use of seismic air guns to survey what lies below the ocean floor is expected to injure and possibly kill 138,500 dolphins and whales along the East Coast, including nine critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, of which there are only about 500 left in the world.
The offshore survey technique uses sound waves generated by an air gun aimed toward the ocean floor to determine possible petroleum deposits, according to National Aquarium conservation expert Laura Bankey. However, the use of seismic air guns to survey the ocean floor substrate has many critics, according to Bankey.
“Critics of this technique are concerned that the level of noise generated by the air gun surveys is too extreme and will be harmful to marine life,” said Bankey this week. “They say the intensity of sound required to collect data from miles below the seafloor is so high that it has the potential to harm marine mammals, sea turtles and fish.”
The environmental advocacy group Oceana, which in September delivered a petition containing over 100,000 signatures to BOEM calling for the government to halt the practice, has led the charge.
“With offshore drilling in the Atlantic at least five years away, shooting seismic air guns is an unnecessary insult to marine life and coastal economies,” said Oceana’s Vice President of U.S. Oceans Jacqueline Savitz. “Our message is simple. Do not turn the Atlantic into a blast zone and stop seismic air guns. It is time for the Obama administration to stand up to Big Oil and say no to seismic air gun testing in the Atlantic.”
Bankey said National Aquarium officials are concerned about the potential harm to marine life in general, but specifically because the organization and similar marine mammal stranding organizations up and down the coast are currently dealing with a summer-long trend of dolphin mortality linked to a virus. Just last week, three more dead or dying dolphins washed up on the Ocean City coast.
“Animals may strand, suffer from hearing loss or lose their ability to capture prey,” she said. “At a time when hundreds of marine mammals have succumbed to a deadly virus, some groups say the additional impact the surveys will have on wildlife is too great.”
Proponents of the plan argue the potential to tap vast domestic offshore reserves and the pressure to cut the country’s dependence on foreign energy sources makes the testing worth it, despite the potential harm to marine life. Offshore testing activity was cut short in 2010 in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and, as a result, all offshore drilling for petroleum deposits along the mid-Atlantic coast was halted until 2017. With the calendar to soon flip over to 2014, that once long-away deadline is now approaching, increasing the desire to begin to explore for oil reserves off the coast.
Earlier this month, dozens of members of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, including Maryland Senators Barbara Mikulksi and Ben Cardin, fired off letters to BOEM seeking a halt to the survey technique.
“Given the decision to prevent dangerous offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, there is no need to move forward with invasive and harmful seismic air gun testing,” the letter reads. “We urge a reconsideration of plans to allow this testing, which will only hurt our coastal communities and the marine resources that drive our coastal economy.”
In addition to the potential ecological impacts, the use of seismic air gun testing off the mid-Atlantic coast has serious economic overtones. Last April, Oceana released a new report highlighting the potential danger to commercial and recreational fisheries as well as tourism and coastal recreation.