Lawmakers ask Obama to halt seismic surveys along East Coast

Northeast lawmakers are asking the Obama administration to abandon a plan to allow energy companies to conduct seismic research to identify hidden pockets of potential oil and gas along the Atlantic Coast.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, both Democrats from New Jersey, sent letters to President Barack Obama highlighting their concerns with an Interior Department plan to allow a new generation of seismic studies along the East Coast, from Delaware to Florida. The last round of similar research was conducted in the region more than three decades ago.

Noting that the geophysical research is the first step in a long path to offshore oil drilling, Pallone said the administration’s Interior Department should “put a stop to (seismic testing) before we experience a Deepwater Horizon-like disaster in the Atlantic.”

“The time and resources that (the Interior Department) is allocating to pursuing seismic air gun testing would be better used to invest in renewables that will help us achieve energy independence,” Pallone said.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is on track to unveil a final environmental study of the seismic research program as early as March, after releasing a draft of that analysis last year. The bureau is moving on a slower timetable since receiving tens of thousands of public comments on the draft environmental impact study last year.

Although the bureau’s five-year plan for selling offshore oil and gas leases through 2017 does not include any planned auctions of Atlantic waters, seismic research today 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.

Energy companies generally use seismic studies to map the ocean bottom and the underground geology of a region in a bid to identify potential oil and gas resources. Bureau Director Tommy Beaudreau has described “significant expressions of interest” from companies eager to get their hands on data about what might be lurking along the East Coast, and at least nine research firms have applied to conduct the sonar studies.

But environmentalists, conservationists and fishermen say the sonar studies are so noisy they can damage the hearing of dolphins and other marine life, cause whales to beach themselves and disrupt animals’ mating and feeding habits.

The most extensive possible tests involve “deep-penetration” seismic air gun surveys, under which a vessel tows an array of air guns that emit acoustic pulses into the seafloor over long durations and over large areas, according to the ocean energy bureau.

Those blasts of compressed air can be more than 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine, said Jacqueline Savitz, deputy vice president of Oceana.

“These loud and constant blasts could lead to serious impacts for marine life,” Savitz said, noting that 900 dead dolphins washed ashore with signs of ear damage after seismic air gun testing in Peru.

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.