Today the administration announced its plans to open the Atlantic to oil and gas exploration. For the environment, this is terrible news, and not just because the airgun surveys it would allow are a gateway drug for drilling. As the scientific community has recognized, they represent in themselves a major assault on our oceans. (NRDC’s fact sheet is here.)
What does an airgun survey mean for marine life? Imagine dynamite going off in your neighborhood every 10-12 seconds for days, weeks, and months on end. Now imagine that you can’t see, and depend on your hearing to feed and do just about everything else you need for survival. That’s the situation that whales, fish, and other marine wildlife are facing.
Airgun noise is loud enough to mask whale calls over literally thousands of miles, destroying their capacity to communicate and breed. It can drive whales to abandon their habitat and cease foraging, again over vast areas of ocean; closer in, it can cause hearing loss and death. The latest science from NOAA and Cornell shows that endangered North Atlantic right whales – which calve off the coast of Georgia and Florida – are especially vulnerable.
And the concern isn’t just about whales. For years, fishermen in other parts of the world have complained about loss of catch when seismic comes around – and for good reason. Norwegian researchers have shown that airguns dramatically depress catch rates in commercial fish by as much as 40 to 80 percent, depending on the fishing method. Again the impact area can be huge: roughly the size of Rhode Island for a single survey.
Green technologies that would substantially cut the environmental footprint of airguns in many areas can be available for commercial use in 3-5 years or less. Yet the administration is opening the floodgates now, in areas it doesn’t even intend to consider for leasing until 2017. Industry has already applied to run hundreds of thousands of miles of trackline from Delaware south through Florida, blasting all the way.
We can’t boom-and-drill our way to lower gas prices. But we can destroy our oceans trying.