Scientists Weigh In On Offshore Seimic Blasting Plan

OCEAN CITY – While the debate over a proposal to lease a vast area off the mid-Atlantic coast for oil and natural gas development intensified this week, a group of renowned scientists weighed in on the method for finding the energy reserves.

On Monday, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) hosted a public meeting in Annapolis to present a proposal to lease a roughly three million-acre area off the coast of Virginia for future oil and natural gas exploration and excavation. The plan is to eventually open the leased area along the outer continental shelf just 50 miles away from Ocean City, Assateague and the Delmarva coastline for the eventual private sector extraction of oil and gas reserves under the sea floor.

Before any offshore drilling or excavation can ever occur, however, the location of the vast oil and gas reserves under the ocean floor must be determined. As a result, BOEM is moving forward with a proposal to allow private sector companies to utilize potentially harmful seismic air gun testing to determine the location of the oil and gas reserves.

Seismic air guns shoot blasts of sound into the ocean floor, each of which is an estimated 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine’s sound. Last July, BOEM released its final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for seismic air gun testing in the mid-Atlantic, essentially opining the potential rewards outweigh any possible impact to marine life.

Heretofore, much of the opposition has been voiced by environmental advocates who have claimed seismic air gun testing off the coast would have an extremely adverse impact on marine life including dolphins, whales, sea turtles and other marine animals. In addition, Maryland’s delegation in the U.S. Senate and House have weighed in, urging BOEM and the Obama administration to back off the plan to blast seismic air guns into the ocean floor.

Just last week, however, the opposition gained some considerable credibility last week when 75 of the foremost marine scientists from world-class institutions such as Duke, Cornell, Stanford and the University of North Carolina along with the New England Aquarium fired off a strongly-worded letter to the Obama administration warning of the catastrophic effect of seismic air gun testing on marine life off the mid-Atlantic coast.

“The Interior Department’s decision to authorize seismic surveys along the Atlantic coast is based on the premise that these activities would have only a negligible impact on marine species and populations,” the letter reads. “Our expert assessment is that the department’s premise is not supported by the best available science. On the contrary, the magnitude of the proposed seismic activity is likely to have significant, long-lasting and widespread impacts on the reproduction and survival of fish and marine mammal populations in the region, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, of which only 500 remain.”

The letter from the leading scientists essentially accuses BOEM of moving forward with the seismic air gun testing proposal without considering the possible ramifications.

“Opening the U.S. east coast to seismic air gun exploration poses an unacceptable risk of serious harm to marine life at the species and population levels, the full extent of which will not be understood until long after the harm occurs,” the letter reads. “Mitigating such impacts requires a much better understanding of cumulative effects, which have not properly been assessed, as well as strict, highly precautionary limits on the amount of annual and concurrent survey activities, which have not been prescribed. To proceed otherwise is simply not sustainable. Accordingly, we respectfully urge you, Mr. President, to reject the Interior Department’s analysis and its decision to introduce seismic oil and gas surveys in the Atlantic.”

For their part, BOEM officials have been out front in the face of adversity to the seismic testing plan and are well aware of the opposition. Following the letter from 75 noted scientists opposing the plan, BOEM Chief Environmental Officer William Brown said the agency has a legal obligation to protect marine species and coastal communities from harm from seismic testing and attempted to dispel some of the alleged misinformation about the proposal.

“To date, there has been no documented scientific evidence of noise from air guns used in geological and geophysical seismic activities adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities,” 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.”

Brown also dismissed the notion each seismic air gun test is the equivalent of 100,000 times the sound of a jet engine.

“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.”