The Hill: Say no to seismic blasting and drilling in the Atlantic

Posted December 12, 2017

First published in The Hill.

Imagine living in a neighborhood where a huge blast, like a stick of dynamite, exploded every 10-12 seconds non-stop for weeks to months on-end. 

Under the Trump administration’s plan to rollback existing protections against offshore drilling in the Atlantic, seismic airgun blasting – the way companies propose searching for oil and gas deposits on the Outer Continental Shelf – could be coming our way. Boats towing lines with up to 40 seismic airguns will detonate them to map potential oil and gas deep below the ocean’s floor – a precursor to oil platforms and related infrastructure lining East Coast communities.

The blasts – among the loudest man-made sounds in the ocean – can be heard underwater up to 2,500 miles awayScientists confirm that the explosions could be harmful and disruptive to marine life, possibly forcing whales and sea turtles to change their migratory and mating patterns, and driving fish away from their feeding grounds. 

Under President Trump’s plan, blasting activities could be permitted along the mid- and south-Atlantic coast, stretching 800 miles from Delaware to Cape Canaveral, Fla., and offshore up to 400 miles. Seven companies have pending applications to start seismic blasting off the Atlantic Coast for timeframes that could extend up to a year.

In 2016, 28 marine biologists who specialize in the endangered North Atlantic right whale, of which only 500 remain, wrote then-President Obama and successfully urged him to suspend seismic blasting. For right whales, “seismic airgun surveys may well represent a tipping point for the survival of this endangered whale, contributing significantly to a decline towards extinction,” they said.

For those who think that’s too alarmist, consider estimates the surveying companies themselves submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service as part of their applications. The blasts from seismic airguns could subject whales and dolphins to a “disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering” over 445,000 times if all the companies are approved. This would include 94 instances for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale; over 11,000 times for large whales like the Humback, Minke, Fin and Sperm; nearly 50,000 times for the small whale species including beaked whales and pilot whales; and over 380,000 times for all the dolphin species in the range. 

Worse, seismic airgun blasting is a warm-up for the main event: oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. Beyond the environmental arguments against this approach to our energy future, there are overwhelming economic reasons to extend the Obama-era freeze on drilling in the Atlantic. 

First, where is the demand for more oil? At roughly $50 a barrel, oil prices remain near 10-year lows, with little sign of a rebound. As 27 senators said in an April 27 letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, “When oil companies are currently holding and warehousing leases in the Gulf of Mexico that comprise an area nearly the size of Kentucky, we should first ensure that they are taking full advantage of the areas that are already available before contemplating opening any new areas to drilling and the threat of a spill.”

The impact of a spill in the Atlantic would be catastrophic. Thousands of jobs and billions in revenue associated with tourism, fishing, and recreation, are at risk. In North Carolina, these activities support about 30,000 jobs and generate $3 billion in GDP. But because of Gulf Stream currents, a major spill could affect the entire eastern seaboard, where about 1.4 million jobs and $95 billion in GDP depend on healthy ocean ecosystems. 

Weigh that against the impact of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon blowout, during which more than 4.9 million barrels oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico: 11 workers dead; an estimated $8.7 billion and 22,000 jobs lost by fisheries by 202010 million user-days of beach, fishing and boating activities lost1 million birds killed; and $13.1 billion paid by BP to repair economic and environmental damage.

The oil and gas industry argues that such mega-spills are rare and claims that much has been done to improve safety. The truth is that offshore drilling in the Atlantic threatens to change the character of the East Coast with the major infrastructure required to pump, move, and process oil and gas while simultaneously leaking millions of gallons of product every year. In an annual review of recorded spills, E&E News discovered 8,519 spills across the United States last year, an average of 23 spills per day.

Seismic airguns harm marine life and are the precursor to an industry that could devastate our environment and coastal economies. Leaders at every level – from local elected officials, municipality leaders, coastal state governors, members of Congress and the administration – should say no to any proposals for blasting and drilling in the Atlantic to protect our vibrant coastal industries and jobs that rely on a healthy ocean.

Jacqueline Savitz is senior vice president of Oceana, the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Ann Colley is executive director and vice president of The Moore Charitable Foundation and its North Carolina Affiliate, the Orton Foundation.