Obama Opens the East Coast to Seismic Blasting; Drilling to Come


Today the Obama administration released its long-awaited Environmental Impact Statement on oil and gas exploration off the east coast.  And not surprisingly, it is a capitulation to the forces of drill-baby-drill.  Within months, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will start issuing permits for seismic exploration, letting companies troll our coasts from New Jersey to Florida with arrays of high-powered airguns.

Airgun exploration is not only a gateway drug to offshore drilling but, as the scientific community has recognized, a major assault on the oceans in itself.  Imagine dynamite going off in your neighborhood every 10 seconds for days, weeks, and months on end.  Now imagine that you depend on your hearing to feed, mate, communicate, and do just about everything else necessary for survival.  That’s the situation that endangered whales, commercial fish, and other marine wildlife are facing with today’s announcement.  The video below shows a single airgun going off in a test pool; a large seismic array can harness more than twenty airguns going off at once.


Already industry has submitted nine applications from oil and gas companies and seismic contractors; together, those applications propose literally hundreds of thousands of miles of seismic blasting.  And no doubt there are others waiting in the wings.  Because of the enormous distances sound can travel in the ocean, the dangerous noise from this activity cannot remotely be confined to the waters off individual states that encourage it.  Some impacts—particularly on the great baleen whales—would extend many hundreds of miles, affecting states as far north as New England.  Fish and fisheries could be affected for tens of miles around every seismic ship.

The cynicism behind today’s announcement is how much it defers the hard decisions to later.  Given the sheer size of their environmental footprint, the only way to meaningfully reduce harm from seismic surveys is to limit them: to strictly limit the areas in which they can occur, or the amount of activity that can take place overall within a region.  BOEM has declined to do that, promising instead to consider these options when it looks at individual applications.  That and about fifty dollars will buy you a share of BP.

The scientific community, conservation community, Congressional reps, and fishermen have all called on the administration to put on the brakes, but to little avail.  Greener alternative technologies that could substantially cut the environmental footprint of airguns in many areas are already well into development and could be available for commercial use in three years or less.  Yet the administration is opening the floodgates now.

As I’ve said in the past, offshore oil is a snake oil cure.  Green-lighting seismic in the Atlantic is just one of many ways the federal government is coddling Big Oil and supporting its monopoly on our fuel supply.  The administration must not be allowed to sacrifice wildlife and the environment for this false promise.