Economy

Aircraft to start hunt for Atlantic oil off East Coast

A young right whale off the South Carolina coast on Jan 4, 2005. Seismic surveys are on hold while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service weighs the risks to endangered whales and other marine life.
A young right whale off the South Carolina coast on Jan 4, 2005. Seismic surveys are on hold while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service weighs the risks to endangered whales and other marine life. Courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission/NOAA Fisheries

An aerial hunt for oil and natural gas reserves in the Atlantic Ocean is poised to launch, a first step in the plan to lease waters off Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia to drilling.

But controversial seismic cannons, considered the best method to find where the oil and gas is, won’t be unleashed off the coast until at least next year.

Jim White, president of the geophysical company ARKeX, said Tuesday he’s received his permit to start the aerial search. The development will represent the first oil and gas survey in decades for the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast, which has been kept off limits to drilling since the 1980s.

Our plane is sitting in North Carolina and ready to start.

Jim White, president of the geophysical company ARKeX

White’s company uses the aircraft to measure variations in the Earth’s gravitational field. Known as full tensor gravity gradiometry, it evaluates density of the subsurface and identifies areas that could hold oil and natural gas reserves. Little is known about how much oil and gas is off the East Coast.

White told the House energy subcommittee that his findings can help companies decide where to target seismic exploration for oil and gas in the Atlantic. Those seismic surveys are on hold while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service weighs the risks to endangered whales and other marine life.

The Obama administration last year opened a huge swath of the Atlantic from Delaware to Florida’s Cape Canaveral to seismic testing. But the companies are still waiting for the necessary permits to get started and expressed frustration that it’s taking so long to get the final approval.

“We continue to spend time and money on this process and may never get the permits,” said Richie Miller, president of Spectrum Geo Inc., a company that does seismic surveys and sells the data to energy companies.

Miller said the Fish and Wildlife Service told him approval won’t come until at least late December. That means the earliest the tests will start is next spring.

Companies will do the work 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.

The echoes produce maps that identify oil and gas. While the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says the seismic tests are safe, they are controversial.

Seventy-five scientists, including some from Duke University, Cornell University and the New England Aquarium, wrote President Barack Obama that the plan “represents a significant threat to marine life.”

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says there is “no documented scientific evidence” that the seismic tests are harmful, and that there will be safeguards to protect marine life.

Robert Gisiner, marine science director for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, told the House subcommittee that the “risk is essentially zero.”

“There is at present no scientific support for statements that seismic sound kills or injures animals,” he said.

But Doug Nowacek, an associate professor of conservation technology at the Duke University Marine Lab, said, “You cannot overestimate the importance of sound to marine life.”

“If these permits are granted, ocean animals located in that wide area of the Atlantic Ocean would be exposed to noise levels that are likely to cause impacts and to disrupt essential behavior patterns,” he said.

Sean Cockerham: 202-383-6016, @seancockerham

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