ST. AUGUSTINE BEACH, FLORIDA – The Obama administration is reopening the U.S. Eastern Seaboard to offshore oil and gas exploration, approving seismic surveys using sonic cannons that can pinpoint energy deposits deep beneath the ocean floor.
Friday’s announcement is the first real step toward what could be a transformation in coastal states, creating thousands of jobs to support a new energy infrastructure. But it dismayed environmentalists and people who owe their livelihoods to fisheries and tourism.
The cannons create noise pollution in waters shared by whales, dolphins and turtles, sending sound waves many times louder than a jet engine reverberating through the deep every ten seconds for weeks at a time. Arguing that endangered species could be harmed was the environmental groups’ best hope for extending a decades-old ban against drilling off the U.S. Atlantic coast.
The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management acknowledged that thousands of sea creatures will be harmed even as it approved opening the outer continental shelf from Delaware to Florida to exploration. Energy companies need the data as they prepare to apply for drilling leases in 2018, when current congressional limits expire.
“The bureau has identified a path forward that addresses the need to update the nearly four-decade-old data in the region while protecting marine life and cultural sites,” acting BOEM Director Walter Cruickshank said in a statement. “The bureau’s decision reflects a carefully analyzed and balanced approach that will allow us to increase our understanding of potential offshore resources while protecting the human, marine, and coastal environments.”
Sonic cannons are already in use in the western Gulf of Mexico, off Alaska and other offshore oil operations around the world. They are towed behind boats, sending strong pulses of sound into the ocean every 10 seconds or so. The pulses reverberate beneath the sea floor and bounce back to the surface, where they are measured by hydrophones. Computers then translate the data into high resolution, three-dimensional images.
“It’s like a sonogram of the Earth,” said Andy Radford, a petroleum engineer at the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas trade association in Washington, D.C. “You can’t see the oil and gas, but you can see the structures in the earth that might hold oil and gas.”
The surveys can have other benefits, including mapping habitats for marine life, identifying solid undersea flooring for wind energy turbines, and locating spots where sand can be collected for beach restoration.
But fossil fuel mostly funds this research, which produces data held as energy company secrets and disclosed only to the government.
The bureau estimates that 4.72 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 37.51 trillion cu. feet (1.125 trillion cu. meters) of recoverable natural gas lies beneath federal waters from Florida to Maine. Oil lobbyists say opening it to drilling could generate $195 billion in investment and spending between 2017 and 2035, creating thousands of jobs and contributing $23.5 billion per year to the economy.
These estimates describe the total amount of energy “technically recoverable” from the outer continental shelf, which includes the seabed off New Jersey, New York and New England. But the north Atlantic zone remains off limits for now, apparently for political reasons. While some states have passed drilling bans, Virginia and the Carolinas requested the seismic surveys in an effort to grow their economies, bureau officials said Friday.
In any case, the area to be mapped is farther offshore in federal waters, beyond the reach of state law.
The sonic cannons are often fired continually for weeks or months, and multiple mapping projects may operate simultaneously. To get permits for this work, companies will need whale-spotting observers onboard, and undersea acoustic tests will be required before each mapping trip. Certain habitats will be closed during birthing or feeding seasons.
Still, the constant banging — which water amplifies by orders of magnitude — poses unavoidable dangers for marine life. Whales and dolphins depend on being able to hear their own much less powerful echolocation to feed, communicate and keep in touch with their family groups across hundreds of miles. Scientists have documented cases in which whales and dolphins have washed up near seismic testing projects with shattered ear bones and signs of decompression sickness.
More than 120,000 comments were sent to the government, which held hearings and spent years developing these rules. The bureau’s environmental impact study estimates that more than 138,000 sea creatures could be harmed, including nine of the world’s remaining 500 north Atlantic right whales.
These whales give birth and breed off the coast of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas before migrating north each year.
“Once they can’t hear — and that’s the risk that comes with seismic testing — they are pretty much done for,” said Katie Zimmerman, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League based in Charleston, South Carolina.
“Even if there were oil out there, do we really want that? Do we really want to see these offshore rigs set up? Do we really want our tourism industry to suffer? Do we really want our environment to suffer?” she asked.
Before the U.S. Atlantic seabed was closed to oil exploration in the 1980s, some exploratory wells were drilled, but the region has never had significant offshore production.