Seismic Airgun Testing Will Kill or Injure 138,500 Whales and Dolphins If Allowed

If companies are allowed to use seismic airgun testing to search for and study oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic Ocean, 138,500 whales and dolphins will be harmed or killed -- and that's according to the government's own estimate. In addition, thousands of animals could have their hearing impaired or lost, and there will be a whopping 13.5 million "disturbances" to animal behaviors like mating and hunting.

The website for the national Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) explains that the agency is moving to "permit [geological and geophysical] activities in support of oil and gas exploration and development, renewable energy, and marine minerals in the Mid- and South Atlantic Planning Areas," which stretches from Delaware to the area near Melbourne, Florida.

Companies hired by Big Oil are looking to see what kind of fuel they might extract from the ocean. To study the ocean bottom, these companies want to blast airguns at it from ships on the surface of the water. The frequencies bounce back and are measured; scientists can then tell whether there are hollow deposits of oil and gas underneath the rock.

Oceana, an ocean conservation group, explains, "These airguns use compressed air to generate intense pulses of sound, which are 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine. These loud blasts are used on a recurring basis, going off every ten seconds, for 24 hours a day, often for weeks on end." Not only does the loud sound drive animals away from the habitat they need to feed, mate, and thrive but it is also suspected to kill them directly; last year, 900 dolphins and porpoises washed up dead in Peru after similar testing, and some were found with bleeding in their ears.

Matthew Huelsenbeck, a marine scientist with Oceana, says the seismic airgun testing "is a big first step to drilling in the Atlantic."

As part of the permitting process, BOEM prepared a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) assessing potential damage to the environment if the seismic airgun testing is allowed. This document describes in scientific jargon how many "takes" -- or incidents that could kill or injure marine life -- there will be to various species.

Oceana parsed the data and relayed it in layman's terms: There will likely be 14 injuries and more than 14,000 disturbances to blue whales, 39 injuries and 3,826 disturbances to humpback whales, and nine injuries and 1,816 disturbances to endangered North Atlantic Right Whales -- of which there are only an estimated 400 left in the wild.

Dolphins will suffer in greater numbers. There will be 22,809 injuries and more than 2.2 million disturbances to the short-beaked common dolphin; nearly 43,000 injuries and more than 4 million disturbances to bottlenose dolphins; 975 injuries to sperm whales; 12 to killer whales; and the list goes on.

Scientists at Oceana also estimate that the testing could drive away fish, having a devastating effect on the fishing industry, which generates $11.8 billion per year and accounts for 222,000 jobs in the affected states.

Huelsenbeck explains that his and other environmental groups already submitted comments in response to the draft EIS. A final EIS is expected in October, and after that, "permitting could happen as early as 2014," although there is a moratorium on oil and gas lease sales until 2017.

BOEM can respond by either approving the seismic testing, approving exploration but requiring less invasive methods, or stopping the the process with a response of "no action alternative." Barack Obama could put an end to it because he supervises the Department of the Interior. "The president doesn't have a lot to benefit to approving this unless he just wants to make oil and gas companies happy," Huelsenbeck says. "It isn't going to be a job creator." He said 50 members of Congress -- including both Republicans and Democrats -- have written letters opposing the airgun testing.

What would be even better would be focusing on offshore wind instead of oil as an energy resource, Huelsenbeck says. "The fear is that in 2017, oil companies would get lease sales in the South Atlantic." But prior studies indicate that "there's not enough oil and gas to supply U.S. energy needs. Oil would not reduce gas prices by even a penny." If we harnessed offshore wind, however -- an abundant resource in the Atlantic -- it would be infinitely better because the energy generated would be clean, stay in the U.S., and eliminate our dependence on fossil fuel, Huelsenbeck said.

Still, oil companies don't want to give up. They now have technology to "look a lot deeper -- and they have the technology to drill in deeper water," Huelsenbeck says, "which is what brought us the Deepwater Horizon oil spill."

A petition asking President Obama to stop the testing had 36,101 signatures at presstime.

To read more, you can wade through BOEM's wonky Environmental Impact Statement, which downplays all the harm that could be done, or see Oceana's not-so-subtle report titled "A Deaf Whale Is a Dead Whale."