Despite the Obama administration’s recent decision to scrap its offshore drilling plans for the southeast Atlantic coast, eight permits for seismic testing are still being pursued in an area of ocean twice the size of California, stretching from Delaware to Florida.
The same coastal communities and environmental activists in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia who galvanized around offshore drilling are just as opposed to airgun blasting off their coast, which they say would harm not only important marine life but also the fishing and tourism industries.
Seismic airguns are used to explore the reserves of oil and gas deep beneath the ocean floor. They are towed behind ships, shooting loud blasts of compressed air deep into the seabed and reflecting information about the buried oil and gas deposits. These blasts can be repeated every 10 seconds for days to weeks at a time.
“If you’re not going to drill, if that’s been off the table, what are they doing? Why would we want to take a chance of harming our ocean life? So the companies that do the testing can make millions and the petroleum industry can have it in their back pocket for later?” asked Frank Knapp, president of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.
Exploration requests by eight companies are being processed, and none has been withdrawn following the drilling decision, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management confirmed to McClatchy. The seismic testing permits are expected to be released sometime in April, followed by a 30-day comment period. The Interior Department received more than 1 million comments on the proposed draft on offshore drilling leases, most from coastal communities big and small down the coast, from Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Beaufort in South Carolina to Savannah in Georgia.
“The only reason to do seismic is to drill. These communities know that,” said Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “While folks on the coast would like nothing more than to move on to enjoying the beaches and fishing grounds they worked so hard to protect, the battle isn’t over until these permits for seismic blasting are off the table.”
Environmental groups and wildlife advocates say the airguns are so loud that they can do irreversible damage by disrupting, injuring and even killing marine life. The Department of the Interior’s own estimates say this seismic blasting in the Atlantic could injure as many as 138,000 whales and dolphins.
“As scientists, these loud, sharp blasts of noise are really concerning,” said Ingrid Biedron, a marine scientist at the environmental group Oceana. “They’re so loud that they can travel up to 2,500 miles, the distance from D.C. to Las Vegas.”
She said the practice could be especially harmful to endangered species off the coasts of the Southeastern states, such as North Atlantic whales, of which fewer than 500 are left.
“Noise from airguns could disrupt the communication that’s essential for their survival,” she said in an interview. “Their critical habitat includes the entire coast of South Carolina down to Florida. They are so endangered that even the loss of two animals could tip the population towards extinction.”
New maps released by Oceana last week show the overlap between the five areas in the Atlantic currently considered by applications for seismic airgun blasting with known habitats for endangered species such as the loggerhead turtle, scalloped hammerhead shark and North Atlantic whale.
Some studies show that seismic airgun noise can reduce fish species – including tuna, marlin, swordfish, snapper and sea bass – by 40 to 80 percent, Bierdon said.
This concern has been voiced by leaders of coastal communities, who have made the economic side of the argument in statements to the federal government. In a 2014 letter to Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, former Charleston, South Carolina, Mayor Joseph Riley said the Interior Department “ignores the economic impacts the proposed seismic testing will have on fisheries and the fishermen who rely on the oceans for their livelihood.”
Even putting the environmental concerns aside, many lawmakers submitted letters to the Interior Department saying the coastal states would not benefit from the testing.
“When seismic testing is paid for by the energy companies and only shared with BOEM and not the states, it means that South Carolina would be on the outside looking in,” Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said in a letter last year, writing that he had “initially been intrigued” by the possibilities of seismic testing.
“To me it makes no sense to do testing that does not allow states and regions affected to then take the information and determine whether extraction of oil and gas reserves in question make worthwhile the environmental, tourism and other risks associated,” Sanford wrote.
Erik Milito, group director of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, an advocacy organization for the oil and gas industry, told McClatchy in an email that the market for the data is “in limbo” precisely because of the decision not to allow drilling in the Atlantic.
“Had the lease sale gone on as planned, data that industry collected would have gone cost-free to the government. Now the seismic companies, should they get the permits issued, will need to determine if they think there will be a market for the data over the longer term, or if the better investment is in other parts of the world,” he said.
Regardless of the Obama administration’s decision, “the government and the industry both say they need new Atlantic seismic data to update decades-old resource estimates,” Milito said.
The last seismic data from the Atlantic dates to 1988, and it was gathered with now-outdated technology. In the Gulf of Mexico, modern seismic equipment discovered vast oil reservoirs hidden beneath salt deposits, sparking the hope that similar discoveries could be found if seismic surveys are allowed in the Atlantic.
This view is supported by a coalition of nine coastal governors, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who say that exploring offshore could bring would thousands of jobs and billions in revenue to their states.
The group supports seismic testing because updated data is “necessary for policymakers to make informed decisions” about energy policy, even if the Atlantic doesn’t see drilling until the next administration’s plan in 2022.
“As (Haley) has worked with members of the congressional delegation and the General Assembly on this critical economic development issue, she’s also been clear: Exploring offshore for energy is critical to our future because it means jobs, energy independence from other countries and security for our state,” Haley’s press secretary, Chaney Adams, told McClatchy on Tuesday in a statement.
For many opponents, there’s a simple answer to the seismic exploration question: With Atlantic drilling off the table for the next five years anyway, just wait for better technology.
“The science of testing for belowground oil and gas reserves is rapidly transitioning to lesser and lesser harmful methods,” Knapp said. “And if we wait 10 years we’re going to say, ‘What the heck were we exploding that stuff underwater for? We didn’t have to do that.’ ”