NJ.com Star-Ledger: Renewed search for offshore oil along Atlantic coast raises concerns in NJ


sonic ship
An oil exploration surveying ship towing an air gun and acoustic receivers used to search for undersea oil and gas formations through seismic shock waves. The oil industry is looking to resume exploration in the Atlantic, south of New Jersey, for the first time in 30 years. (International Association of Geophysical Contractors)

By Ted Sherman/The Star-Ledger
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on March 10, 2014 at 6:45 AM, updated March 10, 2014 at 8:58 AM

Thirty years ago, after spending billions to drill a series of dry holes, the oil industry abandoned a costly search for new oil and gas reserves off the Atlantic coast.
Now, armed with new technology and computerized modeling data, it wants to take another look.

Last month, the Interior Department endorsed a plan that would allow sophisticated seismic testing from Delaware Bay to Florida’s Cape Canaveral – a controversial decision urged by the industry, but angering environmentalists who fear potential harm to marine life – which could lead to renewed drilling in the coastal waters south of New Jersey.

State environmental officials, neither opposing nor supporting the plan, noted New Jersey is not in the immediate survey area, and said they were reviewing the federal report. “It is preliminary exploration to look at the subsurface geological framework and could have some scientific value that could benefit the state in the future,” said a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection.

Gov. Chris Christie, who has repeatedly opposed any drilling off the New Jersey coastline, has not changed his position on the issue, said Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for the governor.

The Atlantic Coast had long been off limits for oil exploration, under a federal moratorium continued in the wake of the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf. But for the past four years, the Interior Department has been holding hearings to determine whether to reopen at least parts of the East Coast to exploratory testing. Officials said newer studies were needed to make informed decisions regarding future oil and gas leases, through the use of seismic testing.

Such testing involve ships that use blasts of compressed air to generate sonic waves aimed at the seabed. The reflected sound is picked up by a towed array of acoustic sensors, providing a 3D image of the underlying geology.

“They are sonograms of the earth,” explained Rutgers University deep-sea geologist Greg Mountain, a member of the university’s Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, who uses similar technology in researching sea level changes. “We’re looking at the top half mile at most. The oil companies are looking 3 to 5 miles deep,” he said.

Mountain said such surveys must be done under strict federal guidelines, including the use of observers, to make sure there is no harm to marine animals.

“There is a lot of the economy that depends on a clean and healthy ocean.”

Oil industry officials say the survey technique lessens the environmental impact of exploration. But opponents say the high energy sound pulses used by the industry can deafen marine mammals and disrupt habitats. Cindy Zipf executive director of Clean Ocean Action, expressed disappointment with the Obama administration for green-lighting the testing. “There is a lot of the economy that depends on a clean and healthy ocean,” she said. “We’ve been working since 1984 to keep this at bay.”

The testing itself would adversely affect the marine environment, asserted Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, and could be especially harmful to marine mammals, such as dolphins and the North Atlantic Right Whale.
“It also can change migratory fish patterns,” he said.

David Pringle, New Jersey Campaign Director for Clean Water Action, said the only reason to be doing seismic testing would ultimately be to drill for oil. “The testing area begins at the Delaware-New Jersey border and the areas they want to explore are within 100 miles of New Jersey,” said Pringle, who warned that even without drilling directly off the coast, prevailing ocean currents would bring an oil spill from wells further south directly to the Jersey Shore.

“It is very much a New Jersey issue,” he said.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th Dist.), a long-time opponent of offshore drilling, said any oil spill would destroy the beaches in New Jersey. He said while the oil and gas industry is pushing to open the Atlantic to drilling, the proven sources discovered in the past were very limited and involved deep water drilling.

“I maintain that the technology doesn’t exist to prevent the real possibility of a spill,” he said.

The decision by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management does not actually authorize any survey activities. It only proposes rules governing seismic testing of the ocean floor.

“The Department and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management have been steadfast in our commitment to balancing the need for understanding offshore energy resources with the protection of the human and marine environment using the best available science as the basis of this environmental review,” said BOEM Director Tommy P. Beaudreau in a statement. “Our scientific knowledge of the Atlantic Ocean is constantly building, and new information and analyses will continue to be developed over time.”

The bureau said new data would be used to not only to locate oil and gas resources, but also site renewable energy facilities.

The area in question was the focus of a four-year exploration effort beginning in 1978, when a number of wells were drilled 100 miles east of Atlantic City in the Baltimore Canyon, and elsewhere off the Continental Shelf in the early 1980s. While some of the holes yielded natural gas, geologists concluded that whatever was there was not economically feasible to develop.

Kenneth Miller, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Rutgers, who also studies rising sea levels, said data from those drilling sites recorded significant amounts of gas in five of the wells.

“They know there’s gas. They don’t know how much, but they know it’s worth looking into,” he said.

Officials at the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association that represents the country’s oil and natural gas industry, said new technologies offer the ability to get a clearer picture of the seabed geology. At the same time, Andy Radford, API’s senior policy advisor for offshore issues, said there are new geologic theories based on discoveries in off the coasts of West Africa and Brazil, driving the effort to go back to the East Coast.

“It’s really just an effort to see what’s out there,” he said.

Special thanks to Richard Charter

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