Atlantic Boaters May Soon Encounter Seismic Blasting, Offshore Drilling
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 destruc- tion 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.”
Researchers found that seismic air gun blasts could be heard nearly 2,500 miles from the survey vessel.