Offshore Oil Exploration in the Atlantic? Bad Idea

07/30/2014 05:30 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017
Offshore drilling rig, Gulf of Mexico
Offshore drilling rig, Gulf of Mexico

Suppose someone was detonating a stick of dynamite in your neighborhood.


Every 10 to 12 seconds.


For days and weeks and months on end.


Maybe you could just ignore the noise. BOOM. Or maybe you'd go a little crazy.


Maybe you lose your appetite. BOOM. And stop trying to ask your kids how their day went. BOOM.

Maybe you start walking in circles. BOOM. Or get lost.

And good luck getting your significant other BOOM to cuddle up and BOOM relax for a little BOOM romantic BOOM fun BOOM time.


Annoying, isn't it? But guess what -- that's what life will be like for marine mammals in the Atlantic Ocean now that the Obama administration has re-opened the East Coast, from Delaware to Florida, to offshore oil and gas exploration. With ban on offshore drilling in the Atlantic expiring in 2017, seismic testing could begin as early as next year.

What's the connection between wells and whales? In a word, noise.

To find deposits buried deep below the seafloor, the oil and gas industry trawls the ocean with powerful airgun arrays. These cannons sound off every 10 to 12 seconds, recording the acoustic vibrations that bounce back as a way to map the sea bottom. An engineer for the American Petroleum Institute euphemistically likens the practice to "a sonogram of the Earth."

Riiiiighhhht ... We use sonograms to check in on fetuses because the sound waves do them no harm. We conduct them in quiet, dark rooms causing little discomfort other than a squirt of cold jelly on the mom's tummy. So let me ask you, does this look like a sonogram?

Acoustic noise, whether it's seismic testing for oil and gas or sonar exercises conducted by the Navy, creates what some biologists call an "acoustic smog." This smog interferes with the way marine mammals perceive the world. In a way, it's like they go blind.

Whales use sound to eat, hunt, find mates, navigate, and communicate with their young and the rest of their pod. Sonic booms jeopardize all of those activities.

National Geographic reports that the government's own estimates have the noise pollution injuring (potentially killing) more than 138,000 marine mammals, and disrupting the migration, feeding, and reproductive behaviors for 13.6 million others.

Seismic testing produces a cacophony nearly on par with exploding dynamite. In fact, the industry actually used to employ dynamite in its search for undersea oil and gas deposits before airguns became a safer alternative. (Safer for workers, that is. Not whales.)

"Whales use sound for virtually everything they do to survive and reproduce in the wild," says Michael Jasny, a marine mammal expert with NRDC (which publishes OnEarth), "and when we make sounds on the order of an industrial seismic survey, we are fundamentally compromising the foundation on which marine life depends."

And it's not just about the nearby booms. Sonic waves pervade through entire ocean basins. In one study, scientists found that a single seismic test can drown out the low-frequency calls of endangered baleen whales for 10,000 square nautical miles -- that's larger than the state of West Virginia. Worse still, airguns can make endangered fin and humpback whales fall silent over areas of the ocean 10 times larger than that.

OK, so a whale's survival and sense of serenity doesn't tug at your heartstrings, but you should know that opening up the East Coast to offshore drilling would hit you in your stomach, too. Seismic surveys, studies show, negatively affect the fishing industry, reducing catch rates for cod, haddock, and rockfish. And I don't need to remind you that the fossil fuels we haul out of the ocean exacerbate climate change, right? Offshore drilling, lest we forget, also risks oil spills that devastate whale, fish, and human communities.

"The use of seismic airguns is [the] first step to expanding dirty and dangerous offshore drilling to the Atlantic Ocean, bringing us one step closer to another disaster like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill," Claire Douglass of Oceana told the Balitimore Sun.

Now that the path to drilling in the Atlantic is open, the fight to save marine life would require stopping oil and gas companies from getting permits for seismic testing and eventually, drilling. And if that doesn't work, environmentalists might have to appeal to the courts. Remember, the oil and gas industry isn't the only one who knows how to bring the noise. BOOM go lawsuits, too.