June 04, 2017 Michael Jasny
Today the Trump administration took the next big step towards opening the east coast to offshore oil. It proposed permitting the oil and gas industry to harm marine mammals while prospecting with seismic airguns—an environmentally assaultive activity that has stirred wide opposition in the region.
If the permits are finally approved, five surveys would crisscross the mid-Atlantic and southeast coasts, from the New Jersey/ Delaware border to central Florida, logging tens of thousands of miles as they go back and forth over the same areas. Each ship would troll the water with an array of industrial-sized airguns, whose blasts, as loud as explosions, rock the water every ten seconds or so for weeks and months on end. Next year would see still more seismic tests, similarly proposed and approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service, with leasing and drilling likely to follow.
Seismic blasting is not only the great precursor to drilling, it is in itself a serious assault on our coasts. In 2015, a group of 75 scientists—including leading experts from Duke, Cornell, Stanford, and other institutions—warned of “significant, long-lasting, and widespread” harm to fish and marine mammal populations should the blasting proceed. And for good reason.
Among many other things, seismic is known to
> silence endangered baleen whales and cause some to abandon their habitat over tens to hundreds of thousands of square kilometers;
> disrupt foraging in marine mammal species as diverse as sperm whales and harbor porpoises, preventing them from getting the food they need to survive and reproduce, from many miles away;
> displace fish from their habitat on coral reefs and in open ocean, dramatically suppressing catch rates for some commercial fish species over thousands of square kilometers;
> injure and kill fish and invertebrates, and impair their development at early life stages; and
> compromise the ability of many marine species to communicate, over many hundreds of miles around a single survey.
Over the years, the oil and gas industry has tried to spin seismic every which way, sometimes calling it an “ultrasound of the earth,” as though replicating explosions were the latest thing in obstetric care, and more recently likening it to lightning storms. A Cornell biologist had a nice riposte to that one: “Yeah, well, imagine living through a nine-month lightning storm.”