In a letter dated March 5, 2015, 75 marine scientists cutting across national lines have asked President Obama to reconsider the decision of the Department of Interior to allow the use of seismic air guns for the exploration of oil and gas on the United States’ Atlantic coast. The decision was made earlier this year.
We live in a world where our energy intensive lifestyles place tremendous pressure on energy resources. The era of ‘easy oil’ is over and oil and gas companies are exploring far, wide, and deep for a few more barrels of oil. The fact that many conventional deposits are located in politically unstable regions adds to the complexities.
This is the first time in thirty years that a U.S. administration has permitted offshore oil and gas drilling. The decision opens up the East coast from Delaware to Cape Canaveral, Florida for such explorations. Drilling cannot begin off the southeast coast or the mid-Atlantic coast until 2017 at least but the decision has already ignited passions.
Underwater Acoustics, an Unchartered Territory
Scientists contend seismic blasting technology is obsolete and harms marine life. The letter specifically mentions the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whales. Only 500 such whales exist and the approval is their death warrant. Seismic blasting will also drive away commercial fishing populations and spell doom for the fishing industry.
Claire Douglas, the campaign director of Oceana, welcomed the letter. Oceana is the largest ocean conservation and advocacy organization operating at the international level. Established in 2001, the organization seeks to promote policies in order to restore and protect oceans.
According to a report by the Department of Interior such blasting may injure an estimated 138,000 whales and dolphins while disturbing millions more. Scientists regard this as a conservative forecast that under states the damage.
Similar blasting in Australia, Namibia, and Madagascar had triggered catastrophic consequences. Last year, over 100 scientists had called on President Obama to delay the decision till the National Marine Fisheries Service codified acoustic guidelines to better protect marine animals from manmade sound.
Similarly, nine senators including Sen. Booker (D-NJ) had urged the Department of Interior to delay the decision till the acoustic guidelines and the best available science could be included in such an intrusive exploration practice.
Seismic Blasting: Operation & Effects
Seismic airguns are arranged in trawling arrays behind a ship and fire shots of compressed air every 10-12 seconds. The blasting continues for weeks or even months at a time. The loudness of seismic blasts can be 250 decibels (dB) in water that is 100,000 times more intense than that of a jet engine.
Such blasting is extremely loud and spreads for miles through the ocean and below the seabed. Studying the reflected waves or echoes helps estimate the possible location of oil and gas deposits.
Whales feed, navigate, and communicate using sound waves. Seismic blasts can muffle whale calls and interfere with marine animal behavior from up to 100 miles away. A deaf whale is a dead whale and these blasts can render a whale deaf. Of course, the blasts could take the most directly route and kill the whales.
Whales apart, seismic blasts could also drive away edible fish populations and destroy the fishing industry. The blasts can interfere with the breeding, breathing, feeding, navigating, and communicating of marine life as well as destroy their eggs and larvae.
Commercial fisheries in the seismic blast zone create 200,000 jobs and create $11.8 billion annually. When we add the professions of recreational fisheries, tourism, and coastal recreation, the number of endangered jobs jumps to 730,000.
It is precisely for these reasons that a cross section of individuals and organizations representing diverse but linked interests have either opposed the decision or expressed grave concern over it. Such entities include:
- Cape May County Chamber of Commerce, South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, North Carolina Tourism Board, and Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce
- 37 coastal communities and over 300 federal, state, and local officials
- International Game Fish Association, Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, the Billfish Foundation, and Southeastern Fisheries Association
Energy, A Cruel Necessity
While pointing fingers at the administration and the oil-gas exploration companies, we must not forget that we are all part of the same system. Global population stands at a burgeoning 7billion plus. Add to that the rapid spread of high-demand lifestyles and you can guess why resource depletion is such a major issue.
Technologies take time to mature into genuinely useful applications. The same is true for renewable energy technologies. Until then, we will have to continue our dependence on fossil fuels. The only other alternative is to go back to the days of cavemen. Now can we even think of that?