Sunday, December 28, 2014

East Coast reopened to energy exploration

Obama OKs sonic-cannon surveys.

Rehabilitated turtles released in Jacksonville, Fla. In the renewed hunt for oil and gas in the Atlantic, from Florida to Delaware, sonic-cannon tests pose dangers for whales, fish, and sea turtles.
Rehabilitated turtles released in Jacksonville, Fla. In the renewed hunt for oil and gas in the Atlantic, from Florida to Delaware, sonic-cannon tests pose dangers for whales, fish, and sea turtles. BOB MACK/ Fla. Times-Union

ST. AUGUSTINE BEACH, Fla. - The Obama administration is reopening the Eastern Seaboard to offshore oil and gas exploration, approving seismic surveys using sonic cannons that can pinpoint energy deposits deep beneath the ocean floor.

Friday'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 100 times louder than a jet engine reverberating through the deep every 10 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 Atlantic Coast.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management acknowledged that thousands of sea creatures would be harmed even as it approved opening to exploration the outer continental shelf from Delaware to Florida. Energy companies need the data as they prepare to apply for drilling leases in 2018, when current congressional limits expire.

"The bureau's decision reflects a carefully analyzed and balanced approach," acting bureau director Walter Cruickshank said in a statement, "that will allow us to increase our understanding of potential offshore resources while protecting the human, marine, and coastal environments."

Sonic cannons are already used in the western Gulf of Mexico, off Alaska, and in other offshore oil operations around the world. They are towed behind boats, sending down pulses of sound that reverberate beneath the sea floor and rebound to the surface. Hydrophones capture the results, which computers translate into high-resolution, three-dimensional images.

"It's like a sonogram of the Earth," said Andy Radford, a petroleum engineer at the American Petroleum Institute, an oil- and gas-trade association in Washington. "You can't see the oil and gas, but you can see the structures in the Earth that might hold oil and gas."

The surveys also can map marine habitats and identify solid undersea flooring for wind-energy turbines. But fossil fuel mostly finances this research, and corporations keep the data secret, disclosing it only to the government.

"They paid for it, so I can see why they don't want to share," said John Jaeger, a University of Florida geology professor. "These things are not cheap."

Oil lobbyists say drilling for the estimated 4.72 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 37.51 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that lie beneath federal waters from Florida to Maine could generate $195 billion in investment and spending between 2017 and 2035, contributing $23.5 billion per year to the economy.

The sonic cannons are often fired continually for weeks or months, and multiple mapping projects may operate simultaneously. To get permits, companies will need to have whale-spotting observers onboard and do undersea acoustic tests to avoid nearby species. Certain habitats will be closed during birthing or feeding seasons.

Still, underwater microphones have picked up blasts from these sonic cannons over distances of thousands of miles, and the constant banging - amplified in water by orders of magnitude - will be impossible for many species to avoid.

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. Even fish and crabs navigate and communicate by sound, said Grant Gilmore, an expert on fish ecology in Vero Beach, Fla.

"We don't know what the physiological effects are," he said. "It could be permanent hearing damage in many of these creatures just by one encounter with a high-energy signal."

More than 120,000 comments were sent to the government, which spent years developing these rules. The bureau's environmental-impact study estimates that more than 138,000 sea creatures could be harmed, including nine of the world's remaining 500 North Atlantic right whales.

By federal law, scientists can't approach marine mammals without following careful protocols, and yet this decision will pervade their environment with noise pollution that could have a long-term impact on their population, said Scott Kraus, a right whale expert at the John H. Prescott Marine Laboratory in Boston.

"No one has been allowed to test anything like this on right whales," Kraus said. The Obama administration "has authorized a giant experiment on right whales that this country would never allow researchers to do."

More than 16 communities from Florida to New Jersey passed resolutions opposing or raising concerns about seismic testing and offshore drilling. In north Florida's St. Augustine Beach, tourism and fishing fuel the economy, and rare turtles come ashore to lay eggs.

"Florida has already felt the devastating effects of an uncontrolled oil release with the Deepwater Horizon event of which cleanup efforts are still ongoing," said John Morris, a county commissioner whose constituency includes the beach town. "Any oil spill, large or small, off the coast of St. Johns County would greatly affect the county's economy."

 

Jason Dearen Associated Press
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