Boom! Oil-exploring seismic blasts could soon disrupt whale territory

A dolphin and its baby race along a commercial fishing boat in the crystal clear waters of the Atlantic Ocean 10 miles off the coast of Atlantic Beach, NC in 2007. (Chuck Liddy/McClatchy)
A dolphin and its baby race along a commercial fishing boat in the crystal clear waters of the Atlantic Ocean 10 miles off the coast of Atlantic Beach, NC in 2007. (Chuck Liddy/McClatchy) Raleigh News & Observer

As early as next spring, the boom of seismic cannons will sound under the Atlantic Ocean as the first oil and gas exploration allowed off the East Coast in three decades gets underway.

While federal officials and the oil and gas industry characterize the exploration as benign, Nags Head Mayor Bob Edwards said he’s terrified about what the intense sound waves can do to dolphins and endangered North Atlantic right whales, of which only 500 remain.

“I just can’t understand how anybody would propose something that’s going to be just a rape of the East Coast, endangering whales and dolphins and turtles and fish,” he said.

The seismic surveys are done with compressed air guns that blast as loud as a howitzer under the sea, repeated every 10 seconds or so for weeks at a time. Echoes from the blasts are used to produce three-dimensional maps that help company geologists figure out whether sub-sea rock formations are likely to contain fossil fuels worth drilling.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved opening an area of the Atlantic Coast from Delaware to Florida for the seismic blasts, saying there “has been no documented scientific evidence” that they harm marine mammals. Even among federal scientists, though, there is concern over what such extreme pulses of sound can do to the hearing and communication of whales and other marine life that use sound to locate food and mates, and to keep track of young.

“It’s been pretty well documented that seismic surveys have disrupted animal behavior and animal communication,” said Danielle Cholewiak, a senior acoustics researcher for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Political leaders in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia lobbied President Barack Obama to approve the seismic testing to assess how much oil and natural gas lies off the East Coast, with the hope that Obama will allow offshore drilling that brings jobs and money.

But in coastal towns that rely on tourism, such as Nags Head on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the idea of drilling into the ocean is hugely contentious. The Outer Banks economy relies on the visitors who rent vacation homes for weeklong vacations and relax on wide golden beaches along the windswept Atlantic Ocean.

A spill would devastate the local tourism industry, said Paul Manning, who owns the Front Porch Cafe on the Outer Banks, where the employees roast coffee and serve up mugs to tourists plotting their day at the beach or where to find the best seafood along the shore.

Manning argues that the cash from opening up the Atlantic Ocean to drilling would largely go to ports like Wilmington, N.C., or the more industrialized Hampton Roads area of Virginia, leaving places like the Outer Banks with the risks of energy development and no reward.

Jessica Weiss Taylor, who leads the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research, worries about the dolphins that swim off the coast, saying, “There is a likely chance they would be affected by the seismic testing.”

The environmental group Oceana says the seismic blasts threaten to injure or kill thousands of Atlantic marine mammals, and even pose a threat to the area’s fisheries. Oceana has launched a campaign calling on President Barack Obama to reverse his approval of the seismic exploration and said about 60 people, including South Carolina state Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, attended a forum on the planned Atlantic blasts that it held along with the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League this week in Charleston, S.C.

Allen Burrus, a Hatteras, N.C., grocer and member of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, said that offshore drilling would bring economic benefits to the Outer Banks and that he suspects the environmental fears are being overblown by groups with an agenda.

“I believe if they can prove that it hurts the mammals in the sea then they probably should not do it,” Burrus said. “But if it’s not hurting them, then why not?”

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said it will restrict when the seismic cannons are fired during whale migration and will require onboard spotters and acoustic tests meant to detect marine mammals and shut down activities when they are too close.

The agency said that if such precautions are followed, then the seismic exploration “should not cause any deaths or injuries to the hearing of marine mammals or sea turtles.”

The American Petroleum Institute said the seismic blasts are safe and are being overly restricted by the government.

“Operators already take great care to protect wildlife, and the best science and decades of experience prove that there is no danger to marine mammal populations,” the oil industry association said in a statement.

George Ioup, a physics professor at the University of New Orleans, has studied the effects of the seismic blasts in the Gulf of Mexico. He said there are many unanswered questions, but that whales and dolphins in the Gulf tend to operate at frequencies far higher than the soundwaves from seismic cannons.

“They probably don’t even hear them very well,” Ioup said.

It’s different in the Atlantic, though, Ioup said. Species of large Atlantic whales, including the endangered right whales, operate at low frequencies and will hear the booms. An “extraordinary amount of caution” is needed if there’s seismic exploration near spawning or feeding grounds of such whales, Ioup said.

Restrictions on where the surveys can happen are made less effective, though, by the fact that the blasts can be heard underwater over distances of more than 2,000 miles, said Doug Nowacek, an associate professor of conservation technology at the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C.

“If there’s a survey in Virginia you’re going to hear it in southern North Carolina _ easily,” Nowacek said.

The waters off North Carolina could see a lot of activity. The National Science Foundation plans a seismic air gun survey off the state’s coast this month and next to study the Earth’s crust. The federal government is weighing permit applications for the much more comprehensive oil and gas surveys.

Nowacek said there has been far too little data collected on the impact of the seismic cannons, and he was dismissive of industry assertions that the booms are harmless.

“I would say show me the evidence that there’s no harm,” he said.

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