Drilling our Atlantic Coast

Some of the most mysterious and enthralling places on Earth may be next in line for oil and gas drilling.

Today the Obama Administration released its draft Environmental Impact Statement on its proposed plan to allow areas offshore the Mid- and South Atlantic to be surveyed for their energy development potential. This would allow seismic surveying, which uses air guns (i.e. high decibel acoustic energy pulses blasted from ships) to map the ocean floor. Seismic surveys can be catastrophic to ocean life, including endangered whales and commercial fishing stocks.

In the ocean, animals communicate by sound. The sound impact from seismic surveys can displace marine mammals, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale, away from nurseries and foraging, mating, spawning, and migratory corridors. Seismic airgun surveys also have been shown to damage or kill fish and fish larvae and have been implicated in whale beaching and stranding incidents.

And these surveys will be occurring at and around some of the Atlantic’s most amazing submarine canyons. (“Ocean Oases” is a short NRDC film about the urgent need to protect the Atlantic Coast’s underwater canyons and seamounts.)

Cut into the Atlantic’s continental shelf is a series of vast undersea canyons, starting just north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina and running up past Cape Cod. The canyons dive down thousands of feet over clay and stone cliffs before reaching the deep ocean bottom. The canyons host an amazing variety and abundance of marine life. Their hard foundations have allowed deep sea corals, rare sponges, and vivid anemones to grow and a bevy of fish and shellfish find food and shelter in these complex and dynamic environments. Endangered sperm whales, beaked whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals feed on congregating schools of squid and small fish. Commercial and recreational fishermen enjoy fishing the waters around the canyons. The types of coral and sponge communities in the seamounts and canyons have even yielded scientific and technological advances, including compounds for cancer treatments, models for artificial synthesis of human bone, and elements for constructing more durable optic cables.The canyons that would be impacted by seismic surveys in the Mid and South-Atlantic include Baltimore, Accomac, Washington, and Norfolk.

The oil and gas industry has not been allowed in these areas since drilling exploratory wells near several of the canyons in the early 1980s; Salazar’s announcement changes this. 

We do need to plan ahead for our energy needs.  Well-sited renewable energy shows much promise to help us keep the lights on at home. After the Deepwater Horizon disaster, we know the widespread ecological and economic devastation that can result from an offshore oil well blow-out. Even small oil spills can kill marine organisms and disrupt marine ecosystems. Properly sited offshore wind offers us a cleaner and safer way forward.

Our oceans support a host of jobs, food and recreation and we need to protect our ocean resources and allow these important services to continue into the future.