Feds deny seismic testing permits for Atlantic Ocean

Date Published: 
Jan. 13, 2016a

It’s Part Two in a major victory for those concerned about the impact of fossil fuel exploration on a clean, healthy Atlantic Ocean. Seismic testing has been banned in the U.S.’s Atlantic Ocean waters, for now.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) announced officially on Jan. 6 that six geophysical and geological (G&G) permit applications to conduct airgun seismic surveys in the Mid- and South Atlantic Planning Areas of the Atlantic Ocean had been denied.

Nine months prior, the Atlantic had been removed from the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil & Gas Leasing Program. So, without companies leasing the ocean floor for exploration (much less drilling for oil and natural gas), opponents argued, there was no good reason to allow the seismic testing that would pinpoint areas for such exploration. Under the Obama administration, BOEM agreed.

“Since federal waters in the Mid- and South Atlantic have been removed from leasing consideration for the next five years, there is no immediate need for these surveys,” stated BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper.

The administration also reasoned that, because of the areas had been removed from the lease program until 2022, any underwater surveys could become obsolete should, in the distant future, leases even be granted again, and that a less impactful technology could be invented in the meantime.

“In the present circumstances and guided by an abundance of caution, we believe that the value of obtaining the geophysical and geological information from new airgun seismic surveys in the Atlantic does not outweigh the potential risks of those surveys’ acoustic pulse impacts on marine life,” Hopper stated.

Two permit applications were for areas directly off the Delaware coast, with another four off the Maryland and/or Virginia coasts — some stretching all the way to Florida.

A seventh permit is currently under review — one using less-intrusive technology. (Since the process began several years ago, several applications have been withdrawn; two less-intrusive surveys were approved, although one permit has expired.)

There is currently no oil or gas exploration program in the Atlantic Ocean. The most recent lease sales were held in 1983, but those led to no oil or gas production.

“Today, we thank the Obama administration for finishing the job in protecting the Atlantic Ocean from offshore drilling activities,” stated Claire Douglass of the Oceana international advocacy group. “With offshore drilling off the table for the near future, there was absolutely no reason to risk the damage that would be caused by seismic airgun blasting in the region.

“Seismic airguns create one of the loudest manmade sounds in the ocean, firing intense blasts of compressed air every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for weeks to months on end,” stated the group.

“In addition to being extremely loud, these blasts are of special concern to marine life, including fish, turtles and whales, which depend on sound for communication and survival,” Oceana representatives continued. “Numerous studies demonstrate the negative impacts that seismic airgun noise has on ocean ecosystems, including reduced catch rates of commercially valuable fish and silencing bowhead whales.”

Underwater noise

In seismic surveys, ships carry airguns that shoot sound waves strong enough to penetrate undersea rock. The ships are also pulling several miles of “streamers” that pick up the waves reflected up from the undersea sediment. Sailing over thousands of square miles, they build a general map of areas considered worthy of further exploration for potential oil/gas reserves.

Seismic testing is the most thorough, but arguably most invasive, method for underwater surveying.

Every species reacts differently to the seismic blasts, said BOEM’s Stan Labak. Generally, big baleen whales are the most susceptible to damage from the blasts, because their hearing is in the same range as the seismic gun, followed by toothed whales and dolphins, pinnipeds (including seals and manatees), then sea turtles, which might hear the noise but are less likely to change their behavior because of it, he told Coastal Point in 2015.

Labak said seismic guns are different from Navy sonar, which has been the source of concern for potentially traumatizing whales with loud sonar pings that can disorient the whales — sometimes causing mass beach strandings.

But opponents haven’t been impressed by mitigation tactics meant to prevent excessive harm to sealife. After all, a seismic cannon must “penetrate two miles into the earth. That’s how deep it’s gotta go,” Delaware Surfrider’s John Doerfler said in 2015. How could nearby animals not be impacted?

Why survey?

As part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, BOEM “manages the sale and responsible development of off-shore mineral energy resources on the outer-continental shelf.”

BOEM had received about a dozen permit applications from various companies. Those ships (and a few planes) would have used various technologies, including seismic, to survey the Atlantic floor, in various spots from Delaware to Florida.

With that data, the U.S. would decide which spots might even be viable oil production sites. Only then could oil companies place bids for leasing those sites.

But after receiving around 1 million comments, mostly opposed, the DOI removed the Atlantic Ocean from upcoming plans for oil and gas development.

“We heard from many corners that now is not the time to offer oil and gas leasing off the Atlantic Coast,” stated DOI Secretary Sally Jewell in 2016. “When you factor in conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities, it simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with any lease sales in the coming five years.”

In March of 2016, the DOI excluded the Atlantic for several reasons, including “current market dynamics, strong local opposition and conflicts with competing commercial and military ocean uses.”

This doesn’t mean the Atlantic Ocean will never go into oil production, but the move means a significant delay in any plans to do so.

Successful opposition

More than 100 East Coast municipalities had publicly opposed offshore drilling and/or seismic airgun use (including the seven beach towns from Lewes, Del., to Ocean City, Md.), many of whom officially commented during the BOEM permitting process.

Opponents included legislators, scientists, fishery management councils, garden clubs and Chambers of Commerce.

Comments ranged from the fears of an oil spill, which would impact local economies and wildlife, to it minimizing the Wallops Flight Facility’s offshore launch hazard area.

“This most recent move proves that, when we fight, we win. President Obama listened when we asked to be taken out of the five-year oil and gas leasing plan; he listened when we asked for permanent protection for our Mid-Atlantic special areas; and he listened when we asked for him to stop seismic blasting,’ said Caroline Wood, Mid-Atlantic Campaign organizer for Oceana.

“No matter what happens in this next administration, we have a powerful movement of people ready to continue defending our Atlantic.”

To learn more about the Atlantic G&G permitting process, visit www.boem.gov/Atlantic-G-and-G-Permitting. More information and maps are online at www.boem.gov/Five-Year-Program.