the debate over drilling for oil and natural gas off the North
Carolina coast rages on, one thing appears certain: Next year, the
first step in that process will begin, most likely, in the spring.
companies have applied for permits to use seismic air guns to look
for likely deposits of oil and gas off the Eastern Seaboard,
including North Carolina, according to David McGowan, executive
director of the N.C.
That work, he said, could involve multiple vessels in the same region
at the same time, though he doesn’t expect tremendous overlap in a
gigantic area that stretches down the East Coast from New England to
the middle of Florida.
when the nine companies are finished, some people fear that the ball
will be set irrevocably in motion for drilling off North Carolina.
people in North Carolina don’t want to see drilling off their
coast, and the impacts on the tourism and fishing industries, now is
the time to stand up, often and loud, and make their feelings known,”
said Claire Douglass, climate and energy campaign director for
an international ocean conservation group. “These oil and gas
companies don’t spend this kind of money -- $85,000 to blast one
square mile -- if they don’t fully expect to drill if they find
Obama Administration brought to the forefront again a debate that
started in the 1980s when the Bureau
of Ocean Energy Management,
or BOEM, announced in July that it would reopen the East Coast to
offshore oil and gas exploration with sonic cannons. The announcement
stirred deep concerns among local environmentalists, some beach towns
and those involved in protecting and studying fish and marine
mammals, including whales and dolphins.
and government estimates in the past pointed to a relatively small
reserve of mainly natural gas off the East Coast. Reflecting that
opinion, a report by a North Carolina advisory panel on offshore
energy a few years ago concluded that recoverable oil and gas
deposits off the state’s coast might amount to as much as 690
million barrels of oil and 16.25 trillion cubic feet of gas, enough
to supply 36 days of our country’s daily demands for oil and 246
days for natural gas. The federal government, in a more recent
report, has estimated that the entire mid-Atlantic coast might
contain 1.42 billion barrels of oil and 19.36 trillion cubic feet of
natural gas, based on decade-old seismic surveys. Drilling proponents
recently have been touting an estimate by ICF International, a
Virginia-based management, technology and policy consulting firm,
that this area could actually produce more than 5.8 billion barrels
of oil and more than 29 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
a comparison, the Gulf of Mexico -- America's largest known oil
reserve -- has almost 45 billion barrels of recoverable oil and
Alaska has close to 38 billion barrels.
noted that it’s been decades since any exploration took place in
the Atlantic. Past efforts, he said, used equipment and methods that
are antiquated compared to today’s standards. No one will know
what’s really out there, he said, until someone goes out and looks.
by no means a certainty that no matter what is found, any drilling
will be allowed,” he said. “That hasn’t been decided by the
federal government yet. But given the energy situation in the
country, we feel that we owe it to ourselves to use the best
technology available and the best analysis available so that we have
the best information possible to use in deciding whether to move
what the nine companies intend to do. They will dispatch ships towing
air guns about 50 to 60 miles out to sea. The guns will shoot loud
blasts of compressed air through the water and miles into the seabed,
which reflect back information about buried oil and gas deposits.
While the federal government disputes that the guns are “100,000
times louder than a jet” – a commonly stated comparison – a
fact sheet issued recently by William Y. Brown, chief environmental
officer for BOEM, concedes that “measured comparably in decibels,
an air gun is about as loud as one jet taking off.”
noise and what it might do to animals within hearing distance is the
biggest arguments against seismic testing.
Douglass said, allows the seismic boats to shoot the pulses of
compressed air through the water every 10 seconds, sometimes for
weeks or months on end.
lessen the potential effect on whales and other animals, the agency’s
environmental study of the East Coast testing includes areas that
must be closed to testing at certain times and requires observers on
the vessels to watch for right whales, dolphins and other marine
steps aren’t enough, Douglass said. “These sounds can travel
tremendous distances and can still cause pain and damage and disrupt
behavior at great distances,” she said. “And it does not really
consider cumulative impacts, the repeated exposure. In the ocean, the
mammals and fish are dependent upon sound, both to migrate and to
communicate. These seismic guns pose tremendous problems.”
experts vary on the range of the danger, some say the pulses of sound
can harm whales and other marine life with blasts of 230 to 250
decibels, so loud that they that can sometimes be detected up to
2,500 miles away.
if mammals are not within damage range, Douglass said, the sounds
“are loud enough to kill small organisms like fish eggs and
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.
fact sheet, however, states that, “To date, there has been no
documented scientific evidence of noise from air guns used in
geological and geophysical seismic activities adversely affecting
marine animal populations.”
technology, he said, “has been used for more than 30 years around
the world. It is still used in U.S. waters off of the Gulf of Mexico
with no known detrimental impact to marine animal populations or to
also said it’s up for debate about the impacts on movement of
marine species near the guns.
do not know what a whale, dolphin or turtle actually experiences when
it hears an air gun,” he wrote. “Many marine mammal species but
not the baleen whales, including North Atlantic right whales, have
reduced sensitivity to sound signals that are in the same frequency
range as airplanes and air gun arrays. Some whales appear to move
away from surveys, indicating that they probably don't like the
noise, but bottlenose dolphins have often been observed swimming
toward surveying vessels and ride [next to the] bow.”
also disputed the figure of 138,000 injuries or deaths, or at least
qualified it. “This statement misrepresents the facts,” he wrote.
BOEM scientists studied what injuries marine mammals might sustain if
nothing were done to lessen the effects of air guns. They then looked
at ways to reduce the effects, such as such avoiding migration routes
and stopping surveys if vessels get close enough to marine mammals to
possibly injure their hearing.
a thorough, public process, the department selected a preferred
alternative that included the most restrictive mitigation measures
that would allow surveys to take place,” Brown wrote. “We expect
survey operators to comply with our requirements and, if they do,
seismic surveys should not cause any deaths or injuries to the
hearing of marine mammal or sea turtles.”
marine mammal experts, such as Keith Rittmaster, the natural science
curator at the N.C.
in Beaufort, are worried about potential effects exploration might
have on the animals.
has studied marine mammals extensively for more than two decades and
has worked as a federally mandated observer on one of the sonic
cannon vessels operating off Alaska.
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
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 dead mammal, whether in the water or stranded on a beach, and
that’s often a problem. There is clearly the potential for
damage or destruction of tissue in the mammals and for, at the very
least, changes in the mammals’ behavior, Rittmaster added.
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.
also conceded that there are known instances of some animals
co-existing with sonic oil and gas exploration activities in the Gulf
Nowacek, an associate professor of conservation technology at the
University Marine Lab
in Beaufort, has studied whale behavior in many areas, including the
Gulf of Mexico, where seismic cannons have been used extensively for
seabed mapping and oil and gas exploration for many years, and he’s
worried, for a number of reasons.
marine mammals will be, at best, severely stressed, and at worst,
will simply leave, he said. Other, more local whales, like pilot
whales, might want to leave but might not do so because they really
don’t know where else to go.
is their home,” he said. “It’s like if it was happening in your
neighborhood. Where are you going to go? It’s all you know.”
noted that the companies usually do pay attention to the observers on
the vessels. But, he said, the blasts are basically continuous, day
and night, and during inclement weather. It’s not at all clear, he
said, whether observers would even see the whales and other marine
mammals in the dark or under inclement weather conditions. And
there’s also no way to know which direction the animals might go if
it’s unlikely that that a whale or other marine mammal will get
close enough to the blasts to have its eardrums blown out, Nowacek
said, the cumulative effects are important. It’s like a human being
in an area where a jackhammer is being used, constantly, for months
on end. Stress increases dramatically, he said, and we know from
studies on rats and humans that there are almost sure to be negative
impacts on all kinds of things, including feeding and mating. And
there’s no doubt that the sounds mask the animals' own sounds,
making it difficult if not impossible for them to hear each other.
Essentially, in a world where sound is the key to communication, the
seismic blasts can render an animal “blind.”
important to note, Nowacek said, that the seismic blasts won’t be
just a one-time thing. If the initial effort finds areas that are
promising in terms of oil and gas production, multiple companies will
come back to do more and more powerful blasts in order to fine-tune
where to drill. And even after drilling, there will be periodic
seismic activity to determine how much has been removed and what
might remain. In other words, Nowacek said, once this whole thing
starts, it is likely to become the new normal in at least some areas.
he said, humans might also have to get used to it: surfers and
swimmers, he said, can hear the pulses underwater -- the sounds
travel that far.
chief goal, Douglass said, is to try to persuade the federal
government not to include the Atlantic Coast in the five-year energy
plan that will begin in 2017 and end in 2022.
just not worth the risk,” she said, “and not just because of the
impact on marine life. Do people on North Carolina’s Outer Banks
want to see tar balls washing up? Does anyone want another Deepwater
recently started a campaign in Myrtle Beach,” she added. “These
areas are so dependent upon clean water for tourism and for fishing.
People might think that now, 2014, is too far in advance to fight,
but it isn’t. It’s just around the corner.”
said the whole testing-and-drilling issue poses basic questions that
we need to ponder and answer.
we don’t want this [seismic tests and offshore drilling], what
then?” he asked. “We can’t just continually say, ‘Go drill
somewhere else.’ At some point, we either have to accept this or
get serious about alternative energy.”
thinks there’s relatively little risk and great potential for the
state in oil and gas exploration and production.
grew up in Wilmington and still have family there and along the
northeastern part of the state’s coast,” he said. “I’m
convinced this [seismic testing] is safe, and more importantly, so
does BOEM. This has been done for many years and in many areas, and
with a good track record, and the protective measures are pretty
Seismic Survey To Learn Formation Of Atlantic Ocean
looking for oil and gas won’t be the only ones bombarding the ocean
floor with sound waves. Scientist may use air guns off Cape Hatteras
as early as this week to study the creation of the Atlantic Ocean.
part of a collaborative research project with Columbia University,
to send a ship from Monday to Oct. 22 towing 18-36 air guns to
investigate how the continental crust stretched and separated during
the opening of the Atlantic Ocean more than 100 million years ago.
project site is between 10 to 262 miles off Cape Hatteras.
Shillington, an associate research professor at the Lamont-Doherty
of Columbia University, said the work is important and the results
could change what we know and think about the formation of the
Atlantic Ocean and the breakup of Pangea,
the “supercontinent” that included what is now North America,
Eurasia, South America, Antarctica, Africa and India. The
supercontinent, geologists believed, formed around 300 million years
ago in the late Paleozoic Era and began to break up 100 million years
later, during the early Mesozoic.
was the last of a number of supercontinents that existed, the result
of constantly moving, colliding and separating plates of the earth.
project is designed to help us understand how these continents broke
apart to form the ocean,” Shillington said. “It happened all the
time. But we don’t really understand why. We do know that it’s
very hard for 100-mile thick piles of rock to break apart.”
are, she said, a number of possible reasons for the breakup,
including magma that heated up and weakened the boundaries. The rocks
under the sea off North Carolina and Virginia, as well as some of the
formations on land, are thought by scientists to hold a lot of clues
about those ancient areas of weakness and separation.
is one of the fundamental processes that made the earth what we know
today,” Shillington said. “It will increase our knowledge of that
process, and it will also give us new information about some more
recent things, such as submarine landslides that have occurred all
along the East Coast.”
study isn’t related to oil and natural gas exploration or
development. But the scientific survey is similar in methodology to
the testing for oil and gas. It stirred some of the same fears about
effects on marine mammals and on fish, especially since the fall
fishing season is nearly underway in the state.
latter concern was important, according to Michelle Walker,
spokesperson for N.C.
Division of Coastal Management.
time they want to do this is during fall fishing and there are a lot
of productive fishing areas where the survey will be,” she said
when the proposal first came to light.
division is responsible for determining whether projects like this
one are consistent with the state’s coastal-management law. If it
finds a proposal inconsistent, the federal government couldn’t
issue the necessary permits.
scientific study was consistent with state laws, the division
notified the National Science Foundation in a letter Monday, as long
as the scientists followed the same mitigation measures – placing
observers on the ship and using acoustic monitors – as are expected
to be required when private companies begin testing for oil and gas
surveys. If such steps aren’t taken, the state would object
to the project, the letter says.
officials last week acknowledged receipt of the letter, but as of
Wednesday afternoon had not responded officially. Maria Zacharias, a
foundation spokeswoman, said late Monday afternoon that the state’s
letter was “under review” and the goal was to reply in a timely
fashion. She said information on the foundation’s response to the
state should be forthcoming in the next few days on its website.
scientific work also has raised concerns among the state’s
commercial fishermen. Jerry Schill heads the New Bern-based N.C.
a trade and lobbying group for some commercial watermen. He had
submitted a letter to the state about the project, urging it to
to all the uncertainty about the project and how it would affect many
aspects of our coastal life including but not limited to commercial
and recreational fishing, the North Carolina Fisheries Association
urges you to reject the NSF’s consistency determination for this
project,” Schill wrote.
commissioners in Nags Head also formally opposed the project’s
application, and other local governments have expressed concerns.
(This story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the
coastal news and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You
can read other stories about the North Carolina coast at
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