Whales and dolphins “at risk” from sonic oil prospecting off eastern USA seaboard

The Guardian reports, 19th July 2014: “The Obama administration is reopening the eastern seaboard to offshore oil and gas exploration, approving seismic surveys using sonic cannons that can pinpoint energy deposits deep beneath the ocean floor.

The announcement was the first real step towards what could be a transformation in coastal states, creating thousands of jobs to support a new energy infrastructure. But it dismayed environmentalists and people who owe their livelihoods to fisheries and tourism.

North Atlantic right whale

A north Atlantic right whale swims with her calf in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Florida and Georgia.
Photograph: Anonymous/AP

The cannons create noise pollution in waters shared by whales, dolphins and turtles, sending sound waves many times louder than a jet engine reverberating through the deep every 10 seconds for weeks at a time. Arguing that endangered species could be harmed was the environmental groups’ best hope for extending a decades-old ban against drilling off the US Atlantic coast.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) acknowledged that thousands of sea creatures will be harmed even as it approved opening the outer continental shelf from Delaware to Florida to exploration. Energy companies need the data as they prepare to apply for drilling leases in 2018, when current congressional limits expire.

“The bureau’s decision reflects a carefully analysed and balanced approach that will allow us to increase our understanding of potential offshore resources while protecting the human, marine, and coastal environments,” the acting BOEM director, Walter Cruickshank, said in a statement.

Sonic cannons are already used in the western Gulf of Mexico, off Alaska and in other offshore oil operations around the world. They are towed behind boats, sending down pulses of sound that reverberate beneath the sea floor and rebound to the surface. Hydrophones capture the results, which computers translate into high-resolution, three-dimensional images. “It’s like a sonogram of the Earth,” said Andy Radford, a petroleum engineer at the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas trade association in Washington DC. “You can’t see the oil and gas, but you can see the structures in the Earth that might hold oil and gas.”

The sonic cannons are often fired continually for weeks or months, and multiple mapping projects may operate simultaneously. To get permits, companies will need to have whale-spotting observers on board and do undersea acoustic tests to avoid nearby species. Certain habitats will be closed during birthing or feeding seasons.

Still, underwater microphones have picked up blasts from these sonic cannons over distances of thousands of miles, and the constant banging — amplified in water by orders of magnitude — will be impossible for many species to avoid. Whales and dolphins depend on being able to hear their own much less powerful echolocation to feed, communicate and keep in touch with their family groups across hundreds of miles. Even fish and crabs navigate and communicate by sound, said Grant Gilmore, an expert on fish ecology in Vero Beach, Florida.

“We don’t know what the physiological effects are. It could be permanent hearing damage in many of these creatures just by one encounter with a high-energy signal,” Gilmore said.

The surveys can also map marine habitats and identify solid undersea flooring for wind energy turbines. But fossil fuel mostly funds this research, and corporations keep the data secret, disclosing it only to the government. “They paid for it, so I can see why they don’t want to share. These things are not cheap,” said John Jaeger, a University of Florida geology professor.

Source: The Guardian, 19th July 2014. For the full text, see www.theguardian.com/business/2014/jul/19/whales-us-approves-seismic-oil-prospecting-atlantic

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