East Coast Open For Oil Exploration, Puts Sea Animals In Potential Danger

The government has opened up federally controlled east coast waters to seismic mapping and eventual oil drilling in 2018. Companies will use sonic cannons -- devices that send sound waves deep into the ocean -- to obtain data on potential oil sources, information they'll need when applying for licenses to drill in the future. The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says that sea life could be harmed by the noises, outraging environmentalists.

The east coast was closed to exploration in the 1980s. At the time, there was little to gain. The technology was not advanced enough to penetrate deep into the Atlantic ocean. Now, thanks in part to new seismic technology, oil companies are getting better estimates of how much energy could be down there.

Oil lobbyists have estimated that there are 37.51 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 4.72 billion barrels of recoverable oil off the east coast. Tapping those resources would require $195 billion in investment, which would create jobs. Annually, the oil drilling could produce $35 billion.

In difficult economic times, some are wondering if the east coast can afford to lose the oil contracts.

"I honestly feel we can go offshore and harvest the energy that's out there," said South Carolina state Senator Paul Campbell. "I think we're kind of foolish not to."

Nevertheless, an environment impact analysis from the government estimated that 138,000 sea creatures will be harmed from the noise. Whales, dolphins, even crabs rely on sound for survival.

Whales and dolphins use their own form of sonar to communicate and even feed. Crabs use sound to navigate along with fish. Most worrisome are the endangered animals off the east coast. The 138,000 sea creatures include the nine of the remaining 500 right whales.

Scientists are not entirely sure what the effects of the sonic cannons will be on sea life, but as Grant Gilmore, sea ecology expert from Vero Beach, Florida, explained, "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."

As the mapping goes forward, some precautions will be taken to address the concerns. Companies will be required to have whale spotters on board and avoid breeding periods and specific habitats.

Although the oil explorations will be federal waters, some states have passed laws to prevent drilling in their own jurisdictions. New Jersey up through New England will continue to be a no drilling zone.

Many communities in Florida, with the memory of the Deepwater Horizon disaster still fresh, have taken a hard stance.

According to county commissioner John Morris, "Florida has already felt the devastating effects of an uncontrolled oil release with the Deepwater Horizon event of which cleanup efforts are still on-going, any oil spill, large or small, off the coast of St. Johns County, would greatly affect the county's economy."

The full environmental impact analysis on east coast oil exploration can be found here.

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