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US opens East Coast to oil search
ST AUGUSTINE BEACH—The Obama administration is reopening the US Eastern Seaboard to offshore oil and gas exploration, approving seismic surveys using sonic cannons that can pinpoint energy deposits deep beneath the ocean floor. Yesterday’s announcement is the first real step toward what could be a transformation in coastal states, creating thousands of jobs to support a new energy infrastructure. But it dismayed environmentalists and people who owe their livelihoods to fisheries and tourism.
The cannons create noise pollution in waters shared by whales, dolphins and turtles, sending sound waves many times louder than a jet engine reverberating through the deep every ten seconds for weeks at a time. Arguing that endangered species could be harmed was the environmental groups’ best hope for extending a decades-old ban against drilling off the US Atlantic coast.
The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management acknowledged that thousands of sea creatures will be harmed even as it approved opening the outer continental shelf from Delaware to Florida to exploration. Energy companies need the data as they prepare to apply for drilling leases in 2018, when current congressional limits expire.
Sonic cannons are already in use in the western Gulf of Mexico, off Alaska and other offshore oil operations around the world. They are towed behind boats, sending strong pulses of sound into the ocean every ten seconds or so. The pulses reverberate beneath the sea floor and bounce back to the surface, where they are measured by hydrophones. Computers then translate the data into high resolution, three-dimensional images.
The surveys can have other benefits, including mapping habitats for marine life, identifying solid undersea flooring for wind energy turbines, and locating spots where sand can be collected for beach restoration. But fossil fuel mostly funds this research, which produces data held as energy company secrets and disclosed only to the government.
The bureau estimates that 4.72 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 37.51 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas lies beneath federal waters from Florida to Maine. Oil lobbyists say opening it to drilling could generate $195 billion in investment and spending between 2017 and 2035, creating thousands of jobs and contributing $23.5 billion per year to the economy.
These estimates describe the total amount of energy “technically recoverable” from the outer continental shelf, which includes the seabed off New Jersey, New York and New England. But the north Atlantic zone remains off limits for now, apparently for political reasons.
While some states have passed drilling bans, Virginia and the Carolinas requested the seismic surveys in an effort to grow their economies, bureau officials said Friday.
The sonic cannons are often fired continually for weeks or months, and multiple mapping projects may operate simultaneously. To get permits for this work, companies will need whale-spotting observers onboard, and undersea acoustic tests will be required before each mapping trip. Certain habitats will be closed during birthing or feeding seasons.
Still, the constant banging—which water amplifies by orders of magnitude—poses unavoidable dangers for marine life. Whales and dolphins depend on being able to hear their own much less powerful echolocation to feed, communicate and keep in touch with their family groups across hundreds of miles. Scientists have documented cases in which whales and dolphins have washed up near seismic testing projects with shattered ear bones and signs of decompression sickness.
Before the US Atlantic seabed was closed to oil exploration in the 1980s, some exploratory wells were drilled, but the region has never had significant offshore production.