As the months move closer to a possible opening of the Atlantic Coast to underwater seismic airgun exploration, opponents of the practice and industry advocates continue to push and pull in the debate that could — once exploration commences — lead to offshore oil and gas drilling.
Dustin Cranor, senior communications director of the ocean conservation and advocacy group Oceana, said the damaging effects of seismic testing for oil to marine life are well-documented and significant.
“The bottom of the food chain up to the very top of the food chain is impacted by this,” Cranor said.
On June 22 the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution published a study by a team led by Robert McCauley, an associate professor at Curtin University in Australia, that studied the impact of seismic testing on zooplankton and came up with results that indicated effects are worse than once believed.
For instance, in the study’s abstract, its authors note effects of seismic blasts resulted in two-to-three times more zooplankton die-off compared to the control tests. Those effects went clear out to the roughly 1,300-yard maximum range for the test, more than besting the previously assumed impact zone of around 300 yards.
“There is a significant and unacknowledged potential for ocean ecosystem function and productivity to be negatively impacted by present seismic technology,” according to the study abstract.
It continues, “Phytoplankton and their grazers — zooplankton — underpin ocean productivity, therefore significant impacts on plankton by anthropogenic sources have enormous implications for ocean ecosystem structure and health. In addition, a significant component of zooplankton communities comprises the larval stages of many commercial fisheries species. Healthy populations of fish, top predators and marine mammals are not possible without viable planktonic productivity.”
Further, there exists some amount of concern regarding right whales, which use the coasts of Georgia and Florida as prime calving grounds.
A well-circulated letter sent by 28 marine biologists to former President Barack Obama in April 2016 objecting to seismic testing stated, “The right whale’s declining population growth rate is thought to be directly linked to the disproportionately high level of human activity occurring along its east coast range, resulting in entanglements in fishing gear, underwater noise impacts and exposures to other chronic stressors.
“Adding another major stressor to their environment in the form of seismic surveys would, we believe, substantially increase the risk that the population will slip further into decline and would jeopardize its survival.”
Proponents of seismic testing and the drilling that would follow — notably, the industries engaged in that practice — strongly disagree with what are seen as overblown concerns that hinder otherwise responsible energy practices.
“Seismic surveying has been safely used in the U.S. and around the world for decades to locate potential new sources of energy with no known detrimental impact to marine animal populations or commercial fishing,” Hunter Hopkins, the Georgia Petroleum Council executive director, said in a statement. “Allowing scientific research for potential oil and natural gas resources in the Atlantic is a critical step in continuing the U.S. energy renaissance and helping to keep energy affordable for Georgia’s consumers and businesses.”
Samantha Siegel of Oceana said the word “populations” is used by industry professionals because there are not studies on total populations from which to draw conclusions. She also noted the seismic testing application maps on record with the BOEM overlap in much of the area covered between Delaware and midway south down Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Cranor also pointed out if testing goes forward, once one area is tested, those results should be made available to everyone so as not to exacerbate effects on marine life. The International Association of Geophysical Contractors — the folks who do such work — disagrees.
“The bottom line is that it is commercially impractical for any geological and geophysical company to conduct a duplicative survey,” the IAGC states in a fact sheet on the practice. “Survey data, even if acquired in overlapping geographical areas or periods of time, contain different information about the subsurface and what lies beneath it.
“Geophysical customers find these data differences substantial enough that they often pay for multiple sets of information for the same geographical area in order to have the confidence to invest billions of dollars in the effort to bring those resources to the consumer.”
What should go forward and what should not, in this matter, appears as much as whose data you believe, which Cranor acknowledged.
“Whenever you look at the data, look at the numbers, and whenever companies say that there is no harm — the science speaks for itself, it’s not alternative facts,” Cranor said.