In early January, on his way out of the Oval Office, President Obama denied a half-dozen permits to companies that wanted to search for oil and gas deposits beneath the Atlantic. Environmentalists celebrated the move. Titans of the energy industry fumed.
President Trump has reversed Obama’s stance, a decision that critics say could have long-term, wide-ranging and potentially devastating effects on boaters, marine life, coastal communities, commercial fishermen and more.
In early June, the administration took steps toward letting as many as five companies search for energy deposits along the seafloor from Delaware Bay to Cape Canaveral, Florida. Their work could start as early as this autumn with seismic blasting, a technique that produces one of the loudest sounds humans put into the ocean and that serves as a precursor to offshore drilling wherever promising fields are found.
Environmental and scientific groups, coastal businesses, commercial fishing interests and others are decrying the plan. More than 100 members of the U.S. Congress — Democrats and Republicans — sent a letter of objection to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. They wrote that seismic blasting and offshore drilling jeopardize coastal businesses, tourism, fishing communities and national security. “We implore you not to issue any permits for seismic air gun surveys for subsea oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic Ocean,” states the letter.
Offshore drilling has long pitted energy companies and their workers, who can earn higher salaries on rigs than on land, against people who say the industry’s risks to wildlife and coastal communities are simply too dangerous to consider. In Florida, for instance, lawmakers this past summer tried to extend a ban on offshore drilling, hoping to prevent everything from oil-spill beach destruction to industrial views of rigs off popular tourism spots, including Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.
“The oil boys will not stop,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, told the Sun-Sentinel newspaper, predicting that the current effort is the beginning of more industry expansion to come. “They think they have a friend in the White House, and this is the opening salvo.”
While rigs the size of the infamous Deepwater Horizon are eyesores that could affect boaters’ coveted views — as well as looming environmental catastrophes, as that rig’s 2010 explosion showed — the immediate potential harm of seismic blasting is more about sound. In seismic blasting, energy-seeking companies shoot air gun pulses deep into the sea. The sound waves bounce against rock, oil deposits and gas deposits in different ways, then return to the surface, where experts use the data to determine which sites are ideal for drilling.
Seismic air guns are loud. Blasts sent underwater are muted, much as a boat’s engine noise is muffled beneath the surface, but can max out underwater around 180 decibels, according to a Greenpeace report. (For perspective, the detonation of a pound of TNT registers at 180 decibels, measured from 15 feet away.) Even when dulled, the noise is believed to be louder than a rock concert, fireworks or a space shuttle launch.
“Firing a standard air gun array deployed behind a seismic survey vessel generates approximately 250 to 260 decibels of sound,” Douglas Nowacek, a Duke University scientist and professor, stated in testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources. “And while it is difficult to draw exact equivalents in air, these levels approximate the epicenter of a grenade blast and would easily cause the rupture of the human eardrum.”
To understand the impact of that kind of sound, Nowacek told Soundings, think about standing atop the Empire State Building in New York with the seismic gun going off overhead. “It’s shattering windows,” he says. “It’s extremely painful to be underneath it. Even if it goes a few blocks away, it’s still shattering windows. You still can’t hear anybody talk to you. It goes on for blocks and blocks and blocks. Think of a jackhammer outside your window all day. You go insane.”
Years of research shows that whales, dolphin, turtles, fish and squid not only can hear the seismic blasts, but also seek to avoid them, thus disturbing the marine ecosystem. A study in the journal Nature, published online this past June, also found that seismic surveys “cause significant mortality to zooplankton,” which are microscopic food sources for small predators, such as shrimp and some fish. Seismic blasting, that study found, led to a twofold to threefold increase in dead adult and larval zooplankton at the bottom of the food chain, with impact seen at a range two orders of magnitude greater than previously understood.
“That is the stuff that feeds juvenile snappers and groupers and, in one case, right whales,” Nowack says. “This is like taking away the insects of the ocean that feed everything — birds, bigger insects, in some cases owls. Those are the things that turn all that ocean productivity into the fish you eat.”
Such research makes groups that protect marine wildlife a front line of defense in the battle to keep the Atlantic’s boating waters free from offshore drilling — and makes Susan Shingledecker, vice president of the BoatUS Foundation, wonder how the government could consider allowing such big-industry disturbances in waters where even small recreational boats must respect speed restrictions, maintain safe distances from marine life and take other measures.
“There are various measures that recreational boaters take to protect marine mammals,” says Shingledecker, who holds a master’s degree in environmental management. “If we’re required to do those things to keep mammals safe, then we’d expect anyone operating in the ocean to be required to do those things, too. Having marine mammals in the ocean is part of the boating experience.” Chesapeake Bay Foundation vice president Kim Coble told the Baltimore Sun that seismic blasting and offshore drilling represent a “direct attack on the health and economic vitality of the Chesapeake Bay.” Concerns immediately arose, for instance, about the well-being of blue crabs, which spend their earliest months as larvae in the Atlantic, near the mouth of the Bay.
Further issues could affect boaters in multiple ways, says Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. “Seismic blasting is the underwater equivalent of fireworks,” he says. “The average person in a boat isn’t going to feel it, but the shock waves, you may feel. They’re basically letting out an underwater sonic explosion. You might feel some vibration.”
Boaters also should expect a change in animal behavior, Tittel says. “When they blast, the fish are going to scatter, at least temporarily. Your favorite fishing hole may go away for a while. You may find dolphins and other sea mammals that feel tortured and panicked and may run into your boat. They may come close and not even notice you’re there. Their sonar will be overwhelmed by this. They may not pick up your boat when they scatter.”
Seismic air guns can fire into the marine environment every 10 to 12 seconds, 24 hours a day, for days, weeks or months as energy-seeking boats focus on ocean grids, much as a lawnmower might crisscross a yard. In 2012, researchers reported in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America that they had analyzed 10 years’ worth of recordings from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and found that seismic air guns could be heard nearly 2,500 miles from the survey vessels — the distance from Manhattan to Las Vegas. As Nowacek noted in his congressional testimony, “it is therefore possible that a seismic survey operating off Georgia or the southern Carolinas, for example, will be detectable and possibly disrupt marine life and degrade the marine environment off the state of Florida.”
Researchers have also found that while individual companies may only have blasted for a few weeks or months at a time, the sounds of air guns were present in some locations 80 to 95 percent of the time, for more than 12 consecutive months. All of that noise, researchers said, was enough to drown out marine-life communications, including mating calls among whales, with the air gun blasts becoming the dominant background noise underwater.
Some studies have shown that whales stop singing altogether and that dolphin leave when air gun surveys are active. Chad Nelsen, CEO of the Surf-rider Foundation, wrote in The Hill that “the blasts are so loud, they cause permanent hearing damage to whales, dolphin and other marine mammals that rely on hearing for survival. They can disrupt migration patterns, mating and have even been linked to whales beaching themselves.”
Nowacek says he’s particularly concerned about an area known as “The Point” off North Carolina. All five companies wanting to do seismic blasting have included that area in their requests, he says — and it’s an area so diverse with wildlife that the scientist calls it the “Serengeti of the Atlantic.”
“If you go out of Oregon Inlet about 35 miles east-southeast, you will be there,” he says. “If you follow the continental shelf break off that area, there’s a piece that juts out below the surface instead of dropping off. … It’s also where the Labrador Current brings this cold, nutrient-rich water. Not only does it cause productivity, but it also brings animals to that spot.
“We’ll see six species of whales in one day there,” Nowacek continues. “Charter fishermen will catch wahoo and mahi and tuna. You’ll look out and see a school of bonnet-heads swimming by. … We saw a school of 18-inch bright-red squid. There are turtles all over the place. That’s why I call it the Serengeti of the Atlantic. It’s not just mammals. Doing damage to a place like that, a lot of people would agree — there’s just some places that we should not spoil.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sought public comment this summer by describing the permits being considered as a way to let energy companies “incidentally, but not intentionally, harass marine mammals.”
Officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of NOAA, said during a news conference in June that should seismic blasting be allowed along the Atlantic coast, mitigation techniques could include on-board observers being required to alert operators if a protected species came near, acoustic monitoring to find marine mammals beneath the water and shutdowns when sensitive species are observed.
And even though the permits the Trump administration is considering could be issued only as far north as Delaware Bay, states from New England to Maine could end up being doubly affected — not only by traveling sound waves from the south, but also by those from the north. The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Petroleum Board has already approved seismic blasting in prime fishing areas on the Grand Banks through mid-October.
Commercial fishermen who cruise the Grand Banks objected in Canada, making arguments similar to those now coming out of U.S. coastal states such as North Carolina, where the seafood industry generates $157 million, according to NC Policy Watch, a public-policy think tank. “If it’s killing the krill and the phytoplankton, what is it doing to the fisheries?” Larry Baldwin, the Crystal Coast Waterkeeper, told NC Policy Watch. “This isn’t just about the Outer Banks and the coast.”
And while coastal businesses and environmentalists sometimes find themselves at odds with each other, when it comes to seismic blasting and offshore drilling, they’re on the same side, Nowacek says. “The whole East Coast, the public, is completely dead-set against offshore oil and gas,” he says. “We all rely on our tourism and fishing and recreational beaches.”
Nowacek adds that it doesn’t take a major oil spill to destroy the scenery in coastal towns. While catastrophic disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez spills happen about every 30 years, he says, smaller ones occur on a regular basis.
Nowacek points to Texas City, Texas, and Port Fourchon, Louisiana, as examples of what could happen to waterfront communities all along the East Coast in that type of environment. “They used to be cute little coastal cities and towns,” he says. “Now they’re like Mad Max from Thunderdome. An oil spill aside, it’s that kind of development that completely takes over. It’s places for the supply boats and tankers to come in and out. It’s disgusting. I wandered around Texas City, and there was oil all over the place.”
Tittel, of the New Jersey Sierra Club, adds that once blasting ends and drilling starts, boaters are also likely to see off-limits areas for recreational vessels, along with increased industrial traffic. “And if there’s an oil spill? Wooden hulls, fiberglass hulls — they don’t do well when mixed with crude oil,” he says.
Nevertheless, the Trump administration reiterated its intention this past summer to push for American “energy dominance,” including the expansion of oil drilling in Alaska, as well as along the Atlantic coast. In addition to considering the seismic-blasting permits, Trump instructed the Interior Department to rewrite a five-year plan that, under Obama, banned offshore drilling from Virginia to Florida.
“We are pleased to see this administration prioritizing responsible U.S. energy development and recognizing the benefits it will bring to American consumers and businesses,” American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard says in a statement.
Trump continues to argue, as he did during his presidential campaign, that renewed offshore drilling would reduce energy costs, create jobs and make America more secure by increasing energy independence. “The golden era of American energy is now underway,” Trump said in a speech this past summer at the Energy Department. “And I’ll go a step further — the golden era of America is now underway, believe me. And you’re all going to be a part of it in creating this exciting new future.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue.