Intense seismic sound blasts are next big concern for anti-drilling advocates _ environment _ pilotonline. com

Opponents of oil and gas drilling along the East Coast breathed sighs of relief last week when federal officials announced that the Atlantic had been dropped from the next offshore leasing plan.

Now, anti-drilling advocates are focusing on what they see as another threat: a slew of applications for seismic surveys that could increase the estimates of hydrocarbons beneath the ocean floor.

“Mr. President, You’ve Spared the East Coast From Drilling – Now End Seismic Blasting,” reads the headline on a column written for The Huffington Post by an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Environmentalists say intense sound blasts from airguns used in seismic surveys threaten whales, dolphins and other creatures.

Some also are worried about what the tests might find.

The oil and gas industry says reserves along the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf are greatly underestimated. New surveys could help them make a convincing case for that – and perhaps persuade a future administration to allow drilling along the Atlantic.

“We need to remove this from the table. We have a responsibility to remove this from the table,” said Jay Ford, executive director of Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper, one of the leaders in Virginia’s anti-drilling movement.

Even if surveys don’t lead to an increase in estimates, they help create an “institutional momentum” for oil and gas exploration, Ford argued. “It really just about guarantees that this issue will be coming up again.”

In the Atlantic, eight companies have been seeking permits for what’s known as “geophysical exploration” – with six of them proposing airgun use. Some of the applications date back two years. The survey area would extend from Delaware to central Florida.

The permit rush was spurred when the governors of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia asked federal officials to include their states in the 2017-2022 offshore leasing program.

When the initial draft of that program came out early last year, the companies’ gamble looked promising: All four states were in. But the bets suddenly looked a lot riskier last week when the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management yanked the entire Atlantic from the program.

“Now that that’s been taken off the table, I fear the incentive has certainly been lessened a great deal” for seismic surveys, said Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association. He said the contractors typically sell the data their ships gather to large energy companies. With the possibility for an Atlantic lease pushed out to the next five-year program, at the earliest, “they may very well not have anyone to sell their information to.”

Richie Miller, president of Houston-based Spectrum Geo, acknowledged that the government’s action dampened interest but said his company still has potential customers for an Atlantic survey it’s tentatively planning to begin in midsummer. He said a survey like his company is planning could cost $25 million or more, and it’s unlikely that more than one surveyor would find enough customers to cover such a cost.

It’s been more than 30 years since the last seismic surveys for oil and gas were done in the Atlantic. The hydrophones used to measure the signals that bounce back from the ocean floor and the computers and software that help process them into imagery and databases have improved significantly since then.

That’s why industry officials are eager to see survey ships running grid lines in the Atlantic again. They’re almost certain the detective work will cause estimates of potentially recoverable reserves to grow. Currently, the government estimates those reserves at 4.6 billion barrels of oil and 38 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

One thing that hasn’t changed about the seismic specialists is their reliance on powerful airguns – typically, several dozen in an array towed behind ships. The low-frequency sound explosions, which come as often as 10 seconds apart, can penetrate thousands of feet beneath the sea floor and help energy explorers plot where fossil fuels are buried.

Environmentalists say the pulses can disorient marine mammals and damage their hearing. Thirty-nine species live along the U. S. East Coast, including a half-dozen listed as endangered. The most imperiled is the North Atlantic right whale. It’s been estimated that no more than 500 of them remain.

The activists are backed by many prominent ocean scientists, 75 of whom signed a letter to President Barack Obama in March of last year warning of “an enormous environmental footprint” that would be left by seismic airgun blasts.

“For blue and other endangered great whales, for example, such surveys have been shown to disrupt activities essential to foraging and reproduction over vast ocean areas,” they wrote. “Additionally, surveys could increase the risk of calves being separated from their mothers, the effects of which can be lethal, and over time, cause chronic behavioral and physiological stress.”

The industry rejects assertions that what it does is harmful.

“There really is no scientific evidence that proves that sound from seismic surveying actually damages marine life,” said Gail Adams, a former Interior Department official who now is vice president and spokeswoman for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors. “There is a potential there, so we always talk about ‘potential.’ ”

Besides Spectrum Geo, two other Houston-based companies that are proposing seismic airgun surveying – one called TGS, the other ION GeoVentures – have advanced to a key late-stage step in the approval process. They’re awaiting what’s known as an IHA, or “ incidental harassment authorization,” from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Essentially, an IHA gives the go-ahead to “take” – basically, disturb or injure – marine mammals. Under federal law, the operation must have no more than a “negligible impact” on species.

If all of the surveys applied for in the Atlantic are carried out, the scientists said in their letter to Obama, there would be millions of disruptions of marine mammals. If Spectrum Geo’s Miller is correct and no more than one company does any seismic surveying, that number could drop into the hundreds of thousands. Neither TGS nor ION responded to Virginian-Pilot requests for comment.

The Marine Fisheries Service decision on incidental harassment authorizations has been delayed for several reasons, among them the need to factor in new research on seismic testing’s effects on some whale species.

A Fisheries Service spokeswoman declined to predict when the agency will conclude its review. Walt Rosenbusch, chief operating officer for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, said he has been told a decision could come by April.

If the agency does approve the IHAs, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management still must do a final review before issuing a permit. The bureau, in its 2014 environmental impact statement on Atlantic seismic testing, concluded that it would have “moderate” effects on marine mammals and sea turtles and “minor to negligible” effects on fish and other sea creatures.

Still, Claire Douglass, a campaign director for the environmental group Oceana, said her organization would push for the bureau to reverse its sister agency if the Fisheries Service issues the IHAs.

The threat to the right whale alone should be enough to warrant denial, she said. Plus, she argued, there is no urgency for seismic surveys in the Atlantic, given the global glut of oil and gas.

Another possibility is a legal challenge. Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said incidental harassment authorizations have spurred lawsuits elsewhere.

Weaver said claims that the Atlantic’s oil and gas deposits may be far greater than estimated failed to persuade the elected bodies of dozens of coastal communities that adopted resolutions against drilling. Many of those same communities took stands against seismic blasting as well, she noted.

“What we’ve argued,” she said, “is that it doesn’t matter how much is out there. It’s not worth the risk.”