Business as Usual Plan for Future Offshore Drilling Threatens More Whales and Dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico

The Obama Administration has announced its blueprint for offshore oil and gas activities for the next five years (2012-2017).  See the Proposed Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2012-2017.  From the looks of it, we’re back to business-as-usual even though major risks remain. 

As my boss, Frances Beinecke, President of the Natural Resources Defense Council and member of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, said, “Congress has failed to pass a single law to better protect workers or the environment.  Industry has not invested sufficiently in developing the technologies needed to prevent future disasters.  And the government still needs additional resources and science in order to effectively police an industry that so desperately needs it.”  Given the above, it’s clear we’re not ready to proceed with this plan.

Take, for example, the issue of seismic exploration.  To search for deep deposits of oil, industry trolls the ocean with high-powered airguns that, for weeks and months on end, regularly pound the water with sound louder than virtually any other man-made source save explosives.  These surveys have a vast environmental footprint, disrupt feeding, breeding, and communication of some endangered species over literally hundreds of thousands of square miles.  For many species this can result in less food, as even moderate levels of airgun noise appear to seriously compromise the ability to forage.  Compromised foraging can lead to compromised reproduction – a serious problem for endangered species, especially those already suffering from other oil and gas impacts like the devastation that followed the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  For more on environmental impacts, see our fact sheet, Boom, Baby, Boom: The Environmental Impacts of Seismic Surveys.

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But instead of allowing Gulf species to take the equivalent of a deep breath in a region still suffering from the worst oil spill in US history, the Obama Administration dusted off previous plans for the Gulf and proposed the same level of activity that has characterized the area for decades.  It’s like we’re conducting a grand experiment to see how much these species can take before they cry uncle.  And hardly backing of previous intentions to bring this dead-end industry to the Atlantic Coast, the Administration has committed to move “forward expeditiously to facilitate resource evaluation” in the region, promising an environmental analysis of the impacts from seismic exploration covering hundreds of thousands of track miles up and down the Atlantic Coast, though critical habitat and migratory corridors for endangered species.

The simple fact is that this five-year plan for offshore oil and gas activities represents an immense amount of leases up for grab in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska and a commitment for future activities in the Atlantic.  For seismic exploration this translates into thousands of hours, some lasting months at time, of “the most severe acoustic insult to the marine environment,” as described by the director of Cornell’s Bioacoustics Research Program.  Short of a cataclysmic oil spill (and we just had one of those), the seismic exploration that will result from this plan represents the biggest direct (I say direct because, of course, everything pales in comparison to global warming) impact to the environment all in service to an insatiable thirst for oil that this plan apparently seeks to satisfy.