Sonic Cannons Could Endanger Marine Life in S.C. Waters
Seismic Tests Could Open Door to Offshore Drilling
By Rodney Welch
Wednesday, July 30, 2014 | 0 Comments
The seismic blastings can deafen dolphins.
The Obama Administration’s recent approval of seismic blasting on the Eastern Seaboard could have an immediate negative impact on marine life, and long-term consequences for the coast if it leads to offshore drilling, according to local conservationists.
The decision affects the coastal waters of a seven-state region from Delaware to Florida.
In a July 18 statement, Walter D. Cruikshank, acting director of the U.S Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said the decision came about after working with federal agencies and reviewing public input.
“The bureau’s decision reflects a carefully analyzed and balanced approach that will allow us to increase our understanding of potential offshore resources while protecting the human, marine and coastal environments,” he said.
Seismic blasting is a means of discovering oil resources by use of a seismic airgun, or sonic cannon, which is placed in the water and dragged along the water by a boat. The airgun is trailed by rows of sound sensors.
As the American Petroleum Institute explains it, the airgun releases compressed air into the water, creating sound waves. The sensors record how long it takes for the waves to bounce back, which also determines the location of petroleum reserves.
API officials say that seismic blastings are scheduled so as not to disrupt the mating season of marine animals, and that explorations always begin with a low-level warning signal to warn off any underwater animals.
But for conservationists, the risks are still enormous. The sonic blast sent across the ocean floor is said to be a hundred times louder than a jet engine and can deafen both dolphins and the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
“The main impact on marine mammals has to be hearing,” says Hamilton Davis, energy and climate director of the Coastal Conservation League in Charleston. “That’s how they hunt and how they communicate. It’s disruptive across the board, and potentially leads to death in these individuals.”
When marine animals are no longer able to communicate, they abandon their habitat trying to get away from the noise, says Coastal Conservation League program director Katie Zimmerman.
Perhaps the biggest impact would be on the North Atlantic right whale, of which only some 400 remain in existence.
“That’s something we’re very concerned about,” says Alan Hancock, program director of Conservation Voters of South Carolina. “The North Atlantic right whale is endangered, and their calving grounds are off the coasts of North Florida, Georgia and southern South Carolina.”
The sound also interferes with the ability of fish to look for food and communicate.
Davis says that previous environmental assessments have shown as many as 138,000 marine animals could be affected by seismic testing, resulting in injury or death, and that doesn’t even include the impact on fisheries.
Seismic blasting is also the first step toward offshore drilling. For some, that means jobs. For others, it means a Deepwater Horizon oil spill waiting to happen.
Hancock says the East Coast has managed to stave off offshore oil exploration because past projections have indicated that there isn’t enough oil in the South Atlantic to warrant the risk.
“Any oil or gas that would be produced from the South Atlantic would be a drop in the bucket compared to global supplies of oil and gas,” he says.
While the prospect of offshore drilling has been welcomed by Gov. Nikki Haley and Senators Lindsay Graham and Tim Scott – the latter has drafted legislation allowing for oil exploration – Congressman Mark Sanford has opposed federal legislation that cuts states out of the process.
Sanford was one of five House Republicans who recently voted against the Offshore Energy and Jobs Act. Sanford said the bill allowed rigs to be built three miles off shore “in plain sight from the beaches of the Isle of Palms or Hilton Head, with no ability of anyone in the state to impact that decision.”
Hancock says mayors along the coast have also been concerned about the “potential impact of offshore drilling on the tourism economy as well as the fishing industry.”
Not only that, offshore oil rigs would not be impervious to hurricanes.
“The frequency of hurricanes means that any offshore drilling off the coast of South Carolina,” Hancock says, “would just be all the more risky and all the more potentially costly for South Carolina’s coast.” – See more at: http://www.free-times.com/
The Obama Administration’s July 18 announcement that that it would reopen the East Coast to offshore oil and gas exploration with sonic cannons is causing concern among local environmentalists and those involved in the protection and study of marine mammals, including whales and dolphins.
“We were very disappointed in the announcement,” he said. “There’s not going to be any direct economic boom and the energy gain from North Carolina would be small.”
Marine mammal experts, such as Keith Rittmaster, natural science curator at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort, are worried, though far from alarmist, about potential impacts exploration might have on the animals.
Rittmaster, whose wife, Dr. Vicky Thayer of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, heads the state’s Marine Mammal Stranding Network, has studied marine mammals extensively for more than two decades and has actually worked as a federally mandated “observer” on one of the sonic cannon vessels operating off Alaska.
“I can tell you it’s very loud,” he said. “I can tell you that while in my bunk on the ship, with ear plugs in and ear protectors over the ears, it was still loud.” And, he added, marine mammals depend on hearing, underwater, for almost all that they do, including navigation.
While there has been relatively little conclusive research on the effects the cannons have on marine mammals – more research has been done and more conclusions reached on the impacts of military sonar – the fact that the government requires observers on the boats in order for them to gets permits means there are, no doubt, potentially serious problems.
The approval by U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management opened the outer continental shelf from Delaware to Florida to exploration by energy companies that are preparing to apply for drilling leases in 2018, when current congressional limits are set to expire. The bureau is moving ahead despite acknowledging that thousands of sea creatures will be harmed.
“The bureau’s decision reflects a carefully analyzed and balanced approach that will allow us to increase our understanding of potential offshore resources while protecting the human, marine and coastal environments,” acting BOEM Director Walter Cruickshank said in a statement.
The sonic cannons are already in use in the western Gulf of Mexico, off Alaska and other offshore oil operations around the world. They are towed behind boats, sending strong pulses of sound into the ocean every 10 seconds or so.
The pulses reverberate beneath the sea floor and bounce back to the surface, where they are measured. Computers translate the data into high resolution, three-dimensional images. The sonic cannons are often fired continually for weeks or months.
Still, according to the AP story, the bureau’s own environmental impact study estimates that more than 138,000 sea creatures could be harmed, including nine of the world’s remaining 500 north Atlantic right whales.
These whales give birth and breed off the coast of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas before migrating north each year. Many other species vital to East Coast fisheries also travel up and down the Gulf.
And some of these animals are so scarce that intense noise pollution could have long-term effects, Scott Kraus, a right whale expert at the John H. Prescott Marine Laboratory in Boston told AP.
“No one has been allowed to test anything like this on right whales,” he said. “(The Obama administration) has authorized a giant experiment on right whales that this country would never allow researchers to do.”
Rittmaster said he doesn’t know of any case in which the sonic cannons have been proven directly responsible for the death of a marine mammal. But he added that any positive causal link would require quick access to a deceased mammal, whether in the water or stranded on a beach, and that’s often problematic, at best. In North Carolina, that task would fall upon Thayer and her network. She declined to comment for this story, but suggested Rittmaster as a source for information on mammals.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican leaders of the state General Assembly have been strong proponents of offshore oil and gas exploration and drilling.
At any rate, Rittmaster added, there is clearly the potential for, at the very least, changes in the mammals’ behavior.
“I saw, or at least think I saw – and it’s pretty well documented – such things as changes in travel direction, changes in diving patterns and even in the sounds they make in response to anthropogenic sounds,” Rittmaster said.
He added that, similarly, there appears to have been little research done on how the sonic blasts affect the fish the marine mammals depend upon for fish.
According to the Associated Press article, fish ecologists say that fish and crabs navigate and communicate by sound.
Patricia Smith, spokesperson for the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, couldn’t provide anyone to comment on the potential impacts that oil exploration might have on fish.
As for marine mammals, Rittmaster said there are known instances of at least some “co-existing” with sonic oil and gas exploration activities in the Gulf of Mexico.
He also said his experience with the offshore oil and gas exploration industry off Alaska convinced him that those involved take the monitoring program seriously.
His job, he said, was to watch for marine mammals and to get on the radio, advise the operators when he saw them and tell them to take action, such as to stop firing the cannon.
It was, Rittmaster said, a very complex system, with the action required dependent upon a variety of factors, including he species involved, the water depth and temperature and bottom topography, among other things.
The companies, he said, have “obviously spent millions of dollars” to learn about how the sounds travel through the water, depending upon those factors.
“If I saw, for example, a Beluga whale, I would get on the radio and say, “Stop,” and they would have, like 12 seconds to stop,” he said. “If they didn’t, that would count as a ‘take.'”
A “take” he said, doesn’t mean a harvest – as it does in fisheries – or even a likely injury. It means anything that would cause an alteration in the whale’s behavior.
Under their permits, the companies are allowed a specific number of “takes” per species over a given amount of time, and their response to a mammal sighting would be dependent upon on several factors, including when the activity was taking place and how many “takes” had already occurred.
But, he said, it’s also very clear that the ability to hear is critical to the survival of the marine mammals.
According to the Associated Press article, before the U.S. Atlantic seabed was closed to oil exploration in the 1980s, some exploratory wells were drilled, but the region has never had significant offshore production.
“One thing we find is, the more you get out and drill and explore to confirm what you see in the seismic – you end up finding more oil and gas than what you think is out there when you started,” Radford said to the news service.
Opposition to oil development has been abundant along the coast, where people worry that oil will displace fisheries and tourism. More than 16 communities from Florida to New Jersey passed resolutions opposing or raising concerns about the seismic testing and offshore drilling, according to AP.
Miller of the coastal Federation outlined his objections in detail in a piece for his organization’s website.
Proponents, he wrote, say that offshore oil from the East Coast will help the U.S. become more energy independent, lower gas prices, provide jobs, increase tax revenues and be environmentally safe.
“But the track record for oil and gas development elsewhere in the country is dogged by failed claims of economic prosperity and environmental stewardship,” he wrote.
“Tainted coastal waters, disruptions of recreational and commercial fishing and inequitable distribution of economic benefits result in an ugly legacy for oil and gas development.”
He disputed the notion that oil and gas development will cause little harm to marine fisheries in the state, in part because of the state’s geography. It’s at the confluence of two currents – the cold Labrador and warm Gulf Stream – which make it highly productive for a wide variety of species. And the state’s coast, which sticks far out into the central Atlantic, is very prone to hurricanes and nor’easters that make oil infrastructure and oil wells very risky in terms of potential pollution.
Miller also disputed the value of oil drilling off North Carolina.
While proponents contend that development of those oil and gas reserves will make the nation more energy independent, he wrote, “In reality, the amount of oil and gas off our coast is just a tiny drop in the bucket of U.S. demand.
“The Carolina Trough south of Cape Hatteras has a potential of about 690 million barrels of oil and 16.25 trillion cubic feet of gas, enough to supply our country’s demands for just 36 days of oil and 246 days of gas,” according to a report by a state advisory panel on offshore energy.
Similarly, he added, there’s little or no indication that development of those reserves will reduce oil and gas costs.
“According to the Annual Outlook on energy supply and prices written by the Energy Information Administration, analysts project that the existing oil and gas reserves in the U.S. coast would not lower, or even significantly affect, gas prices” he wrote.
And as for jobs, “Previous studies by independent committees formed by state government have found that the chances are very slim that N.C. could even compete for this investment with larger ports and much more industrialized areas in Virginia and South Carolina.
“Oil refineries have been proposed for Wilmington and Morehead City in the past and very intense public opposition forced state and local politicians to withdraw their early support for these industries and to eventually soundly reject them.”
Miller wrote that there’s serious doubt about proponents’ assertions that oil production in North Carolina would dramatically aid the state’s budget picture.
“The industry,” he wrote, “estimates that $66 to $400 million a year in direct income to state government over the lifetime of the reserves will come from royalties and leasing fees. However, it will take a Congressional change in federal law to divert these funds to the states,” and that’s not likely given “the severe budget issues facing the nation currently.”
That, he added, is a key to the whole issue, should production ever gear up here.
“Barring a major catastrophic disaster offshore, the development of support facilities and refining capacity onshore poses the biggest risks to the N.C. coast,” Miller wrote. “We have one of the cleanest and most productive coastlines remaining in the U.S. This will no longer be true if oil and gas development results in major new investments in onshore refineries, storage facilities, pipelines and related petrochemical industries, as proponents claim it will. That’s because petrochemical industrial development has never taken place without degrading coastal environments. Existing environmental laws work to minimize harmful impacts, but do not prevent them from occurring.”
Suppose someone was detonating a stick of dynamite in your neighborhood.
Every 10 to 12 seconds.
For days and weeks and months on end.
Maybe you could just ignore the noise. BOOM. Or maybe you’d go a little crazy.
Maybe you lose your appetite. BOOM. And stop trying to ask your kids how their day went. BOOM.
Maybe you start walking in circles. BOOM. Or get lost.
And good luck getting your significant other BOOM to cuddle up and BOOM relax for a little BOOM romantic BOOM fun BOOM time.
BOOM. BOOM. BOOM-BOOM-BOOOOOMMMMM!
Annoying, isn’t it? But guess what — that’s what life will be like for marine mammals in the Atlantic Ocean now that the Obama administration has re-opened the East Coast, from Delaware to Florida, to offshore oil and gas exploration. With ban on offshore drilling in the Atlantic expiring in 2017, seismic testing could begin as early as next year.
What’s the connection between wells and whales? In a word, noise.
To find deposits buried deep below the seafloor, the oil and gas industry trawls the ocean with powerful airgun arrays. These cannons sound off every 10 to 12 seconds, recording the acoustic vibrations that bounce back as a way to map the sea bottom. An engineer for the American Petroleum Institute euphemistically likens the practice to “a sonogram of the Earth.”
Riiiiighhhht … We use sonograms to check in on fetuses because the sound waves do them no harm. We conduct them in quiet, dark rooms causing little discomfort other than a squirt of cold jelly on the mom’s tummy. So let me ask you, does this look like a sonogram?
Acoustic noise, whether it’s seismic testing for oil and gas or sonar exercises conducted by the Navy, creates what some biologists call an “acoustic smog.” This smog interferes with the way marine mammals perceive the world. In a way, it’s like they go blind.
Whales use sound to eat, hunt, find mates, navigate, and communicate with their young and the rest of their pod. Sonic booms jeopardize all of those activities.
National Geographic reports that the government’s own estimates have the noise pollution injuring (potentially killing) more than 138,000 marine mammals, and disrupting the migration, feeding, and reproductive behaviors for 13.6 million others.
Seismic testing produces a cacophony nearly on par with exploding dynamite. In fact, the industry actually used to employ dynamite in its search for undersea oil and gas deposits before airguns became a safer alternative. (Safer for workers, that is. Not whales.)
And it’s not just about the nearby booms. Sonic waves pervade through entire ocean basins. In one study, scientists found that a single seismic test can drown out the low-frequency calls of endangered baleen whales for 10,000 square nautical miles — that’s larger than the state of West Virginia. Worse still, airguns can make endangered fin and humpback whales fall silent over areas of the ocean 10 times larger than that.
OK, so a whale’s survival and sense of serenity doesn’t tug at your heartstrings, but you should know that opening up the East Coast to offshore drilling would hit you in your stomach, too. Seismic surveys, studies show, negatively affect the fishing industry, reducing catch rates for cod, haddock, and rockfish. And I don’t need to remind you that the fossil fuels we haul out of the ocean exacerbate climate change, right? Offshore drilling, lest we forget, also risks oil spills that devastate whale, fish, and human communities.
“The use of seismic airguns is [the] first step to expanding dirty and dangerous offshore drilling to the Atlantic Ocean, bringing us one step closer to another disaster like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” Claire Douglass of Oceana told the Balitimore Sun.
The hemming and hawing ended on July 17.
“The announcement is the first real step toward what could be a transformation in coastal states,” said the Associated Press report, “creating thousands of jobs to support a new energy infrastructure. But it dismayed environmentalists and people who owe their livelihoods to fisheries and tourism.”
“With today’s decision,” whined Claire Douglass, campaign director at the environmental group Oceana, “President Obama is bowing to pressure from Big Oil rather than listening to the thousands of voices calling on him to protect our natural resources and coastal economies.”
Well, allow me to present the call of “thousands of voices” and specifically from “people who owe their livelihoods to fisheries and tourism.” Their call, based on over half a century of experience with offshore oil production (including the ultimate test: the BP oil spill) says: “Drill, baby, drill!”
With over 3,000 of the 3,700 offshore oil and gas production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana is home to almost a third of North America’s commercial fisheries. As a trivial sideline, these oil production platforms also extract 80 percent of the oil and 72 percent of the natural gas produced in the continental U.S. This “sideline” (as us fanatical fishermen see it) by itself would offset the hardships (in any rational calculation of national priorities) of the relatively few “people who owe their livelihoods to fisheries and tourism.”
But a study by LSU’s sea grant college found that majority of Louisiana’s offshore fishing trips (among the state’s top tourist attraction) target these structures. Recreational fishing and diving trips to these structures generate an estimated 5,560 full time jobs and $324 million annually for Louisiana.
“Oil platforms as artificial reefs support fish densities 10 to 100 times that of adjacent sand and mud bottom, and almost always exceed fish densities found at both adjacent artificial reefs of other types and natural hard bottom,” says a study by Dr. Bob Shipp, professor at the Marine Sciences department of the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama, and currently, the vice-chair of the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council.
In fact, the most prolific and diverse marine ecosystem ever recorded by marine scientists was created by offshore oil production. Acting as artificial reefs over the past half century, the teeming fish life, coral colonies, and “bio-diversity,” created by offshore oil platforms is amply documented in several studies commissioned by none other than the U.S. Department of the Interior.
One recent report by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Minerals (a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior) boasts that “fish densities are 20 to 50 times higher at oil and gas platforms than in nearby Gulf water, and each platform seasonally serves as critical habitat for 10 to 20,000 fishes.”
In fact, “villainous” big oil produces marine life at rates that puts to shame “wondrous” Earth Goddess Gaia.
“The fish Biomass around an offshore oil platform is 10 times greater per unit area than for natural coral reefs,” said Dr. Charles Wilson of LSU’s Department of Oceanography and Coastal Science [emphasis added]. “Ten to 30,000 adult fish live around an oil production platform in area half the size of a football field.”
“Evidence indicates that massive areas of the northwestern Gulf of Mexico were essentially empty of snapper stocks for the first hundred years of the fishery,” found the study by Dr. Shipp. “Subsequently, areas in the western Gulf have become the major source of red snapper, concurrent with the appearance of thousands of petroleum platforms.” [emphasis added]
Amongst the scoffers were some of The Travel Channel producers, fashionably greenish in their views. They read these claims in a book titled “The Helldiver’s Rodeo” (and Ted Nugent’s blurb sure didn’t help against their scoffing). The book described an undersea panorama that (if true) could make an interesting show for the network, they concluded, while still scoffing.
They scoffed as we rode in from the airport. They scoffed over raw oysters, grilled redfish and seafood gumbo that night. More scoffing through the hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s. They scoffed even while suiting up in dive gear and checking the cameras as we tied up to an oil platform 20 miles in the Gulf.
But they came out of the water bug-eyed and indeed produced and broadcast a Travel Channel program showcasing a panorama that turned on its head every environmental superstition against offshore oil drilling. Schools of fish filled the water column from top to bottom – from 6-inch blennies to 12-foot sharks. Fish by the thousands. Fish by the ton.
The cameras were going crazy. Do I focus on the shoals of barracuda? Or that cloud of jacks? On the immense schools of snapper below, or on the fleet of tarpon above? How ’bout this – WHOOOAA – hammerhead!
We had some close-ups, too, of coral and sponges, the very things disappearing off Florida’s (that bans offshore oil drilling) pampered reefs. Off Louisiana, they sprout in colorful profusion from the huge steel beams – acres of them. You’d never guess this was part of that unsightly structure above. The panorama of marine life around an offshore oil platform staggers anyone who puts on goggles and takes a peek, even (especially!) the most worldly scuba divers.
“Not a single sample [for oil or dispersant] has come anywhere close to levels of concern,” reported Olivia Watkins, executive media advisor for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
“All of the samples have been 100-fold or even 1,000-fold below all of these levels,” reports Bob Dickey, director of the FDA’s Gulf Coast Seafood Laboratory. “Nothing ever came close to these levels.”
“Fine!” snivel the greenie tinfoil-hatters. “But kindly define what constitutes this “level of concern.”
“The small amount of hydrocarbons in a seafood meal is much less than the exposure from pumping gas,” explained the Los Angeles Department of Health and Hospitals’ Dr. Jimmy Guidry.
“It’s all a conspiracy!” no doubt snivel the greenie tinfoil-hatters, “between big oil and Louisiana seafood processors and the FDA!”
But the facts suggest otherwise.