In the debate over offshore oil, it’s important to remember that environmental impacts don’t start with drilling. Before companies drill for oil and gas, they explore for oil and gas, and it’s not a pretty scene. Industry scopes the seafloor using long arrays of airguns that send extremely intense blasts of noise into the water column, about once every ten seconds, for weeks or months at a time. The impacts that this continual booming has on the marine environment – on species as varied as right whales and cod – are profound.
Today President Obama announced that he would open a huge expanse of ocean, from Maryland to Florida and the eastern Gulf of Mexico, to new exploration and drilling. For decades, a federal moratorium effectively barred the oil and gas industry from running airgun surveys along the east coast of the U.S. But these restrictions were lifted during the Bush years, and Obama’s announcement today could well end with airguns booming up and down the eastern seaboard.
For months now the exploration industry has been lining up at the trough. Spectrum Geo has proposed shooting 112,500 line miles of surveys from Massachusetts down to Florida; Western Geco another 54,900 miles between New Jersey and Georgia; and CGGVeritas more than 42,000 miles running southwards from Maine. And that’s just for starters.
Yet the science shows that the industry’s airguns disrupt the marine environment on a massive scale. In 2006, a single survey off the northeast caused endangered fin whales to completely stop vocalizing – a behavior essential to their ability to mate and feed – over an area at least 100,000 square nautical miles in size. In Norway, a single survey so deranged the behavior of fish that catch rates plummeted over thousands of square miles, and fishermen in some parts of the world have begun demanding compensation.
In short, airgun surveys are “the most intrusive form of man-made undersea noise short of actual naval warfare,” in the words of one prominent biologist from Cornell. That’s not just the proverbial “camel’s nose under the tent” for drilling – it’s a pretty big part of the camel itself. And it’s no way to balance the country’s energy needs with environmental protection.