The Obama administration is to press ahead with proposals to allow loud underwater prospecting for oil and gas off the east coast, even though the practice has been likened to being at the “epicenter of a grenade blast” for whales and other marine creatures sensitive to noise.
The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is considering eight applications for seismic airgun testing which environmentalists say would imperil at-risk whales, sea turtles, sharks and other fish species.
Despite the Obama administration’s recent decision to rule out oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, the airgun testing applications will still be assessed. The seismic airguns are used to emit repetitive blasts of compressed air through the water until they hit the seabed. The echoes from this process can be used to determine if there are deposits of oil and gas beneath the sea floor.
Applications for this testing cover vast areas of the Atlantic stretching from Delaware to Florida. Opponents of the testing claim it could potentially drive whales and fish from their habitat and interfere with their ability to find food and mate.
“We know that endangered whales and fish all change their behavior because of these blasts,” said Dr Ingrid Biedron, marine scientist at conservation group Oceana. “Whales use sound to find partners and food and we are worried these behaviors will be interrupted, or they may be displaced.
“Since the Atlantic has been removed from drilling for the next five years, there’s no immediate need for companies to prospect for oil and gas in this way. We’d encourage them, and the government, to wait until there is safer technology available before going ahead with this.”
According to Duke University marine scientist Douglas Nowacek, the noise from airgun testing can travel for more than 2,500 miles and can “disrupt behavior patterns”.
Nowacek said the sound bursts can reach 260 decibels, which is similar to being at “the epicenter of a grenade blast and would easily cause the rupture of the human eardrum”.
BOEM said the applications will go ahead as they are separate from the decision to rule out drilling in the Atlantic. The federal agency said the testing could be used for other scientific purposes and would only be allowed if there is “negligible impact” upon marine mammals.
“We will continue with this unless the companies withdraw .It’s totally up to them if they want to continue,” said a BOEM spokesman, John Filostrat.
Filostrat said there are several “mitigation measures” that lessen the impact upon whales. They include a stipulation that airguns are ramped up over a 20-minute period to allow marine life to leave the area and acoustic monitoring for animals that would trigger a shutdown of blasting if they do reappear.
Other restrictions, such as limits on the amount of blasting time and measures to avoid collision between vessels and whales, can also be imposed. These processes have been put in place in the Gulf of Mexico, which is a hotspot for oil drilling, but haven’t been seen in the Atlantic for over 30 years due to a federal ban on fossil fuel exploitation in the area.