Things that go Bump in the Bight

Guest Blog | February 28, 2011 | Energy Policy, Offshore Drilling
What do oil exploration and nuclear bombs have in common?
What do oil exploration and nuclear bombs have in common?

When President Obama announced Dec. 1, 2010 a revised Outer-Continental Shelf (OCS) plan for drilling offshore in parts of the Atlantic, Florida and Alaska, many people no doubt took this as a major victory for ocean protection. However, a troubling part of the plan exists toward the very bottom of the Department of the Interior’s press release: “…Interior will move forward with an environmental analysis for potential seismic studies in the Mid and South Atlantic OCS…” These proposed seismic tests are dangerous for the marine environment and unnecessary.

Prior to when the federal government (through the Department of the Interior) leased offshore areas to oil and gas companies, seismic tests were used to estimate and approximate oil reserves to ensure that Uncle Sam received a fair price for leasing the drilling rights. Seismic tests utilize man-made sound to locate geologic formations deep under the seabed that may hold oil and gas reserves for future development. “Air cannons” that deluge the marine environs with high intensity, low frequency noise are dragged behind boats for thousands of miles in a systematic procedure to map an entire area.

The last time extensive seismic testing was completed in the Atlantic Ocean was in the early 1970s by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). After those tests were completed, several companies purchased leases in the Atlantic to drill for oil – but so little oil was produced, the rigs were pulled up in the early 1980s and haven’t been back since. However, in 1990, several oil companies were permitted to explore for oil and gas resources in a portion of the South Atlantic Bight off North Carolina’s coast. The Manteo Exploration Unit was subsequently put on suspension by the State of North Carolina, partially in light of the Exxon Valdez spill and after nearly a decade of court battles, the permitted leases were relinquished in late 2000.

Those early seismic tests, and those dry wells, are still used by the Department of the Interior (DOI) to estimate offshore oil and natural gas potential in the Atlantic. In total, the DOI estimates that some 3.82 billion barrels of oil may be undiscovered, but technically recoverable in the Atlantic – a paltry amount when compared to the total U.S. demand. Even if all the potential oil in the Atlantic was extracted, it would only provide enough oil to supply the U.S.’s demand for about 191 days. This compares to the estimated 44.92 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

One proposed 2D G&G survey
Proposed Seismic Testing

The American Petroleum Institute (Big Oil’s lobbying arm) suggests that new seismic testing technology could show even more potential oil in the Atlantic, and in order for that new technology to be used, the Department of the Interior has to approve testing, which is exactly what the President proposed on December 1st. However, ironically, of the companies lining up to go bump in the Bight, none of them appear to be proposing use of these newest techniques. Instead, they would collect up to 54,000 miles worth of old fashioned 2-dimensional (2D) data, instead of 3D data (which is standard in the Gulf of Mexico) or the more advanced 4D data.

So this acoustic assault on the Atlantic from use of air cannons will not only cause great harm to the marine environment, but by using old technology, there is also no guarantee of discovering additional oil and gas resources. Air cannons are designed to be extremely loud – reaching up to 270 decibels (for reference, a nuclear explosion can be about 300-310 decibels underwater) and have been recorded by scientists from locations over 1,800 miles away. While there are many natural ocean noises (you’ve probably heard all the clicks and crackling noises if you’ve been swimming in the ocean), the excessive noise generated by air cannons mask those natural sounds, which are used by marine animals to hunt, navigate, feed and find mates. The air cannon noise can even cause deafness if an animal is too close, or lead them to avoid areas entirely even after testing stops. Other animals may stay put despite damage to their hearing. Some evidence suggests that seismic testing by the oil and gas industry can increase whale strandings. One theory is that excessive noise causes the mammals to panic and ascend rapidly to the surface, resulting in decompression sickness familiar to human divers called “the bends“.

Images: C. W. Clark, Cornell Lab of Ornithology;  W. Ellison, Marine Acoustics , Inc.; L. T. Hatch and D. Wiley, NOAA SBNMS; S. M. Van Parijs, NOAA NEFSC
Images: C. W. Clark, Cornell Lab of Ornithology; W. Ellison, Marine Acoustics , Inc.; L. T. Hatch and D. Wiley, NOAA SBNMS; S. M. Van Parijs, NOAA NEFSC

The DOI is in charge of seismic tests, along with other geological and geographic surveys (G&G activities). In previous G&G environmental impact statements for the Gulf of Mexico, the Minerals Management Service (now called the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement – BOEMRE) issued “Findings of No Significant Impact” for G&G activity, meaning the agency has not determined those activities to be detrimental to the marine environment.

A related side note: these Findings of No Significant Impact (FONSI) are quite common – Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, issued a FONSI in October to allow continued deepwater drilling, the same kind that caused the largest accidental oil spill in history. It is unclear if this FONSI was based on sound science, or on politics – around the same time, Democrats were getting trounced in the polls and facing their own version of a blowout in the November election.

Baby dolphins are currently dying in unusually high numbers in the Gulf. AMANDA McCOY/SUN HERALD

If seismic testing is allowed off the South Atlantic Bight, we will expose our oceans to some of the loudest noises produced by humans on earth, but seismic technology promises no guarantee – the oil and gas industry may find that there is much more oil than previously estimated, a similar amount, or less than previously estimate. If similar or less than previously estimated amounts of oil are found, our oceans will have endured a needless, and dangerous, barrage of noise. If significantly more oil is discovered that previously thought, it is likely that there will be an even stronger push to allow drilling offshore – opening our oceans and coastline to a whole litany of additional negative impacts.

Meanwhile, the U.S. will continue to be mostly dependent on foreign crude oil imports, at least for another two decades. A Department of Energy report commissioned under President George W. Bush in 2008 estimated that even opening all of the country’s coastline would not have a demonstrable effect on oil imports or gasoline prices.

There is still time to voice your concern about seismic testing in the Atlantic. The Department of the Interior has a comment period soliciting comments from the public about the proposed testing in the Atlantic. Comments are due by March 31st, should be labeled “Comments on the Multi-sale EIS” and delivered to:

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement

Gulf of Mexico Region
Gary D. Goeke, MS 5410
1201 Elmwood Park Boulevard
New Orleans, Louisiana 70123-2394.

In addition, comments may be e-mailed to BOEMRE at [email protected].

National Geographic - Noisy Oceans
National Geographic - Noisy Oceans
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