Seismic Blasting in Whales’ Backyard

Seismic Blasting in Whales’ Backyard

The North Atlantic’s marine life may soon be treated to near-constant seismic blasts as energy companies hunt for new oil and gas drilling sites.

A proposal from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), published last month, lays out a plan to allow five companies to use seismic air guns to conduct geological surveys in area ranging roughly from Florida to New Jersey. The companies, which provide geological information to larger drilling firms, claim that after roughly 30 years without comprehensive mapping, they might find new locations for offshore oil and gas wells.

The mapping itself is conducted by ships firing 180-decibel cannon blasts 24 hours a day, and proponents of the practice say adverse impacts are negligible. But environmental groups, fishing industry advocates, and residents of impacted areas are not convinced. The noises from the air guns—like a continual firework display, but at 1,000 times the volume—can wreak havoc on marine ecosystems by killing zooplankton. Most larger creatures, particularly marine mammals that rely on echolocation, would also experience harmful effects, according to scientists.

President Barack Obama had considered seismic blasting as a way to jump-start East Coast fossil fuel extraction, but ultimately bent to environmental, business, and community pressure and ordered a five-year moratorium on it in the final days of his presidency. The military also strongly opposed blasting, saying it threatened key training areas, and a bipartisan group of 103 U.S. House members signed a letter against it. But President Donald Trump put blasting back on the agenda in April, saying that overruling the ban was part of an “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy” and ordering Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to consider granting new permits to companies conducting blasting.

During the public comment period for NOAA’s proposal, set to expire on July 15, industry voices, community leaders, and politicians all spoke out against blasting. The fishing community cites data showing that fish catches could decline by as much as 70 percent due to blasting, while the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast—which represents 41,000 businesses and 500,000 commercial fishermen—claims falling tourism and fishing revenue would devastate business.

Major oil companies are not scrambling for blasting, either. Most have shifted their attention away from offshore projects in recent years, motivated by the doubling of American crude oil production in the past decade and deterred by the dangers of offshore drilling. Royal Dutch Shell suspended its Arctic Ocean drilling in 2015, and ConocoPhillips will end deep-water exploration this year.  

Following the close of NOAA’s public comment period, permits could be issued almost immediately. Seismic blasting in the Atlantic would then be possibly as soon as this autumn.