Nearly 140,000 whales and dolphins could be injured if the Obama administration allows energy companies to conduct seismic research aimed at identifying oil and gas along the Atlantic Coast, according to a new report issued Tuesday.
The assessment by the conservation group Oceana shines a light on the potential casualties of seismic studies that energy companies use to map the ocean floor and the underground geology of a region.
Air guns used in the process send off pulses of sound that penetrate through the ocean and under the seafloor before bouncing back with clues about what lies below.
Along the way, Oceana said, the sound waves could devastate marine life, including some of the 500 critically endangered North Atlantic right whales estimated to still exist. Air gun blasts also could cause widespread whale displacement and disrupt loggerhead sea turtles along the Atlantic Coast, Oceana concluded.
“Seismic air guns could devastate marine life and harm fisheries and coastal economies along the Atlantic coast,” Oceana said.
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The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is on track to unveil a final environmental study of a potential seismic research program from Delaware to Florida later this year, after releasing a draft of that analysis in 2012. The bureau is moving on a slower timetable since receiving tens of thousands of public comments on the draft environmental impact study last year.
The government’s draft analysis concluded that the testing would cause harassment of some marine animals, with resulting deaths and injuries. According to the ocean energy bureau, 38 marine mammal species are in the area that could be surveyed, including endangered baleen whales and manatees. The bureau’s draft environmental study concluded that seismic surveys could affect as many as 11,748 bottle nose dolphins, 4,631 short-finned pilot whales and 6,147 short-beaked common dolphins.
Industry representatives note that seismic technology has advanced dramatically in recent years — one reason that oil companies are eager for a look at data from the East Coast, where research is decades old. Geophysical survey companies also can tailor the timing of their studies to avoid animal migrations and minimize disruption.
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Industry officials also point to research that shows slim prospects of physical harm to marine life from seismic surveys.
For example, during a 2012 study by scientists in San Diego that aimed studying the way marine mammals experience temporary losses in hearing sensitivity, the researchers could not induce the problem after exposing a dolphin to 10 impulses from an air gun.
“None of the dolphins has exhibited significant behavioral reactions,” the scientists concluded. “These data suggest that the potential for seismic surveys using air guns to cause auditory effects on dolphins and similar delphiniums may be lower than previously predicted.”
Chip Gill, the president of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, stressed that seismic analysis helps boost the odds that oil and gas companies will drill promising wells — rather than dry holes — effectively limiting the industry’s potential footprint.
“We used to explore with a drill bit,” Gill said. “There’s a strong argument that seismic surveys could be the preferred environmental tool.”
Oceana recommends federal regulators require geophysical contractors adopt minimizing techniques, if they allow any seismic research along the East Coast. That could include use of less-disruptive seismic technology — not dependent on air guns — even though it may be a few years away.
“If seismic testing is going to occur, (the Department of Interior) should require it be done using the least harmful technology available,” Oceana said in its report. Regulators also “should permanently close large areas to seismic surveying and drilling to protect vulnerable habitats and species.”
Marine biologists say the government statistics don’t capture the potential damage, some of which manifests slowly over time.
“For marine mammals that are more sensitive to sound and depend greatly on their hearing, such as whales and dolphins, the airgun noise can be a severe threat,” Oceana said. In the case of low-frequency noise, “the sound can travel thousands of miles away from the airgun source, interrupting whale calls and altering their behavior even at great distances. Fin and humpback whales in a 100,000 square mile area stopped singing in the North Atlantic because of such noise, and bowhead whales have abandoned their habitat because of it in Alaska.”
Although the Obama administration’s five-year plan for selling offshore oil and gas leases through 2017 does not include any planned auctions of Atlantic waters, a new generation of seismic research could pave the way for future drilling in the region.
Data indicating potential big untapped resources could add pressure for future administrations to lease Atlantic tracts and help plan any auctions in the area.
The geological and geophysical surveys also would be used to dictate the siting of future renewable energy installations offshore and help pinpoint areas for sand and gravel mining.