The United States government on Friday opened up oil and gas exploration along the Atlantic seaboard by approving seismic airgun tests that are harmful to marine life, including whales and dolphins, according to the Baltimore Sun.
The measure, which had already been rejected during the Obama administration due to its deleterious effects on marine life, was approved by the Trump administration despite opposition from environmental and political groups. Seismic airgun testing is a method for sampling the ocean floor for potential offshore drilling sites in which powerful sonic blasts are emitted by airguns towed behind trolling ships every 10-12 seconds. A ship can tow nearly 100 seismic airguns at a time, and the blasts can travel up to 2,000 miles. Critics believe the testing will disrupt the migratory patterns of dolphins, whales, and sea turtles and damage the offshore fishing and tourism industries. The sonic blasts would also disrupt the communication systems of whales and dolphins, who communicate by sound. Perhaps more importantly, a National Geographic study found that seismic airgun blasts killed over 60% of zooplankton populations within 4,000 feet of the blast, which could lead to widespread starvation and eradication of marine animals through disruption of the food chain.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has authorized permits for five companies to perform seismic airgun tests along the east coast from Delaware to South Florida. The surveys are a part of President Trump’s planned proposal to expand offshore drilling in the Atlantic. Seismic surveys were discontinued in the region during the Reagan administration.
Administration officials have said that the surveys will comply with federal law, which allows for the “incidental harassment” of whales, dolphins, and sea turtles as long as the animals are not killed. All survey vessels will be required to have an observer on board who will listen and watch for marine life, including the detection of underwater life through sonar technology, and alert operators when protected animals come within 56 miles of the ship. The observers have the ability to shut down the operation when endangered or sensitive marine life is observed, and penalties have been imposed for the striking of marine animals.
Douglas Nowacek, a Duke University expert on the impact of noise on ocean life, has testified to Congress that the sounds, which can reach 260 decibels, are akin to being at “the epicenter of a grenade blast and would easily cause the rupture of the human eardrum.”
“Many ocean animals, particularly marine mammals such as whales, rely for their very existence on their ability to use sound,” Nowacek told the Natural Resources committee. “For these animals, sound is central to their ability to find food, to locate other animals, to avoid predators, to reproduce and thus, to survive.”
“The Trump Administration’s grant of these authorizations is misguided and unlawful,” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said in a statement. “In opening the door to harassment of tens of thousands of marine mammals, including endangered species, the administration has again placed the interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of our irreplaceable natural resources. We will continue to fight these and other efforts to open the waters off our coast to offshore drilling for oil and gas.”
Noting that President Obama’s administration denied seismic airgun testing “because of the known harm seismic blasting causes,” Diane Hoskins, campaign director for the environmental group Oceana, said “President Trump is essentially giving these companies permission to harass, harm, and possibly even kill marine life, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale — all in the pursuit of dirty and dangerous offshore oil.”
The American Petroleum Institute, the largest oil and gas drilling lobby in the United States, applauded the Trump administration’s action and said the permitting for seismic airgun surveys was “one of many steps along a rigorous permitting process” to ensure offshore drilling practices that were minimally invasive for marine environments.