The Interior Department by early next year is expected to decide whether to allow the first new surveys for oil and gas in the Atlantic Ocean in roughly 30 years, a move that could reveal new energy deposits but potentially harm endangered whales, fish and turtles.
While drilling off the Eastern Seaboard is likely several years away, the agency is considering opening waters from Delaware to Florida to seismic testing, which involves the use of air guns that emit powerful seismic blasts.
The stakes are high for oil companies that spend up to hundreds of millions of dollars for high-resolution glimpses beneath the ocean floor, as well as endangered right whales and loggerhead sea turtles that scientists argue could be harmed by such activities.
"Ultimately, the goal would be to have activities in areas where they are least likely to impact species," said Deb Epperson, a marine biologist at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management who is helping oversee the agency's $2 million environmental study.
The proposal comes amid a heated election year in which the Obama administration has faced criticism from Republicans and industry for excluding the Atlantic Ocean from its next five-year oil and gas leasing plan. Resource estimates in the south Atlantic and mid-Atlantic are small compared to the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, but some experts suspect that is because resource surveys are outdated.
At the same time, environmentalists have slammed the proposal, arguing that seismic surveys are a "gateway drug" to future oil and gas drilling that could lead to future spills and would increase global warming pollution.
The agency is currently evaluating more than 55,000 comments submitted in response to a draft programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) released last March and hopes to issue a final decision by early 2013 (Greenwire, March 28).
The PEIS will help determine where and under which circumstances companies can conduct future geological and geophysical (G&G) activities, which also support the siting of wind turbines and drilling rigs and the mining of sand or gravel. Additional site-specific reviews and consultations with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would still be required for individual projects.
The agency's draft review considers a range of potential mitigation steps, including closing some waters to protect endangered species, requiring wildlife observers and acoustic monitoring to reduce impacts to whales and establishing buffer zones between seismic tests.
While no decisions have been made, the agency's "proposed action" would allow geological and geophysical activities across roughly 330,000 square miles while closing about 4 percent of the area to protect the North Atlantic right whale, among several other mitigation steps.
A second alternative would expand the time-area closure for whales while adding an additional closure off the Florida coast to protect nesting loggerhead sea turtles. It would also require seismic surveyors to stay at least 25 miles apart and use so-called passive acoustic monitoring, among other surveying protocols.
A final option -- supported by environmentalists, scientists and at least one fisheries group -- would bar the use of air guns for oil and gas mapping altogether, while still allowing surveys for mining or wind turbine foundations.
The first two proposals have drawn sharp opposition from environmentalists and some biologists, who argued that the agency has underestimated the cumulative impacts to the right whale, an endangered species whose global population is estimated at less than 400.
"Given the suite of anthropogenic threats that this species already faces from commercial and recreational fisheries, collisions with large vessels, renewable energy development, marine minerals use, [liquefied natural gas] import terminals, military training and dredged material disposal, as well as long-term challenges of climate change, seismic surveys will likely place this species in greater jeopardy of extinction," scientists from the Society for Conservation Biology said in comments to the agency early last month.
A single seismic survey, the group argued, has caused endangered fin and humpback whales to stop vocalizing over an area the size of Wyoming, muffling communications critical for breeding and foraging. A recent study by scientists from the New England Aquarium found that noise from commercial shipping may cause chronic stress in whales (Greenwire, Feb. 8).
Air guns, which emit low-frequency blasts at 12-second intervals for days -- and sometimes weeks or months -- on end, could potentially mask right whales' ability to communicate, feed or find mates.
"A deaf whale is a dead whale," said Lindy Weilgart, a whale researcher at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. "I'm not saying they're going to immediately die, but they are going to be at a disadvantage. You are definitely losing your edge if you can't hear."
According to BOEM, time-area closures are expected to reduce incidental take of right whales by two-thirds. In a worst-case scenario, up to two of the animals could be injured by seismic surveys annually and as many as 476 instances could occur in which the whales could be disturbed from their normal behaviors.
Weilgart and others have recommended that the G&G industry transition to a lower-impact technology known as marine vibroseis, which, although not yet commercially available, would reduce the noise footprint of air guns by many orders of magnitude and cause less harm to marine life.
Other observers point to the vast seismic activity that could take place over the next decade.
By BOEM's estimate, geophysical firms are expected to conduct up to 750,000 line-miles of air gun surveys, resulting in potential injuries to tens of thousands of dolphins and pilot whales annually. In addition, the surveys could injure a small number of endangered humpback, sperm and right whales.
Seismic activities will also disturb marine mammal feeding, calving, breeding and other vital activities more than 13.5 million times over the next eight years, environmentalists warned in comments to BOEM, citing the agency's own data.
"It is no exaggeration to say that BOEM's proposed action would dramatically degrade the acoustic environment along most of the East Coast," said Matthew Huelsenbeck, a marine scientist at the advocacy group Oceana, which submitted 28,000 petitions to BOEM from the public. "The fundamental problem is that the agency simply does not take the problem of cumulative, sub-lethal impacts seriously."
In addition, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council said too little is known about the impact of seismic surveys on fish to justify new development.
The Delaware-based group, which oversees fisheries in federal waters from North Carolina to New York, said sacrifices by fishermen to sustain stocks could be potentially undone by geophysical activity.
"The general lack of information included in the PElS relative to impacts of G&G activities on fish, marine mammals, and the surrounding ecosystem is of serious concern," the group wrote in comments to the agency last month. "The council recognizes the importance of energy exploration to U.S. economic security, but the activities described ... have the potential to contravene the council's efforts to conserve and manage living marine resources and habitat."
But industry groups argue that seismic testing can be done safely and is a critical step to knowing where, and how, to drill for oil or gas.
Seismic firms have included mitigation steps such as gradually ramping up blast volumes and hiring visual observers to watch for the presence of marine mammals.
Groups including the American Petroleum Institute, National Ocean Industries Association and International Association of Geophysical Contractors said BOEM's review "greatly overestimates" the number of injuries and disturbances seismic testing would cause in the Atlantic.
Moreover, the required mitigation steps would "impose potentially high costs, greatly impede or altogether preclude the conduct of seismic surveys and geo-hazard and cultural resource identification," the groups said in comments to the agency.
Chip Gill, president of IAGC, said mandatory shutdowns to protect dolphins, in particular, are unwarranted since the animals are so abundant and communicate at frequencies much higher than those emitted by air guns.
And while the agency correctly acknowledges major risks to right whales from vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglement, there are no documented cases of injuries, deaths or significant disturbances from air guns, he said.
The agency's proposed exclusion zones for the species appear to lack a scientific basis, he said.
BOEM concedes in its review that there is "incomplete or unavailable information" for all marine mammals with respect to their seasonal abundances, stock or population size, population trends, hearing range, basic biology and underwater hearing.
And Gill said it is also highly unlikely that firms will conduct as many surveys as BOEM has forecast, given that there will be no opportunities to lease or drill for oil in the area until 2017.
While the agency received nine applications from geophysical firms, those proposals were submitted before the Atlantic was removed from future leasing consideration following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"What I can say without qualification is we do not expect anywhere close to the level of activity as indicated by the applications," Gill said, noting that a state-of-the-art survey can cost upward of $100 million. "Today you have no prospects of being able to explore. Therefore, it wouldn't make any economic sense for my members to take the risk."
But Gill said he would not be surprised to see oil companies pursue at least one regional survey.