An Outer Banks nonprofit dedicated to marine mammal conservation says it's imperative that lawmakers and citizens team up to silence the proposed seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research says the sound-based method used to find oil and gas deposits for extraction would cause significant, long-lasting, and widespread impacts on the survival of entire populations of marine species, from tiny plankton to giant humpback whales.
"Noise pollution from seismic testing is known to significantly harm marine mammals, as well as other members of the marine ecosystem," says Jessica Taylor, executive director of the Nags Head-based organization dedicated to the conservation of bottlenose dolphins.
"The dolphin population that is the subject of our long-term monitoring study frequently uses the coastal waters off North Carolina, and will likely be impacted by these planned activities."
Studies by the Department of the Interior estimate that the seismic proposals would cause more than 13 million harmful interactions with marine mammals in the Atlantic, killing or injuring 138,000 dolphins and whales. Among the whales likely to be killed or injured is the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, of which fewer than 450 remain.
The research conducted by Taylor and her team is invaluable: Marine mammals may be exposed to pollutants, emerging pathogens and harmful algal biotoxins. Since they share the coastal environment with humans and consume the same food — dolphin eat a variety of fish, squid and shrimp — they also may serve as effective sentinels for public health problems.
Taylor's research is contributed to the Mid-Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin Catalog, a master catalog of bottlenose dolphins that spans the east coast from New Jersey to Florida and includes the Bahamas. The catalog is used to examine population ranges and more recently, the effects of a die off on different populations along the east coast. Results are presented at regional and international scientific conferences.
The Center's opposition joins a chorus of outrage from other environmental groups, as well as local governments, and organizations that depend on tourism to fuel the economy.
The Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce on Dec. 12 released an official statement opposing oil and gas exploration and seismic airgun testing/blasting off the coast of North Carolina and the entire Atlantic seaboard.
"While we as an organization recognize and support the need for energy independence and alternatives, exploration along our coast would be catastrophic for an area that depends on its natural beauty and environment for not only tourism related industries but for our recreational and commercial fishing fleet, our boat builders, and our entrepreneurs," the statement issued by the OBX Chamber reads.
"Visitors come from all over the world to enjoy the natural beauty of our clean beaches, marshes, sounds, and tributaries. Many of these natural areas provide sanctuary and nesting/breeding grounds for diverse groups of migratory birds, turtles, whales, fish and other forms of wildlife. Along with recreational enjoyment, our coastal waters and natural habitats provide the world with some of the best wild-caught seafood, renowned for its freshness and exceptional quality."
According to the OBX Chamber:
- In 2017, a record $23.9 billion in domestic visitor/tourism spending was realized in North Carolina.
- Out of the 100 counties in the State of North Carolina, Dare County was No. 4 in travel expenditures, generating over $1.13 billion and over 13,000 jobs.
- Direct tourism employment in North Carolina is approximately 226,000+ persons, with a direct tourism payroll of $6.0 billion. Dare, Currituck and Hyde Counties combine for more than $271 million in tourism payroll.
The outcry in response to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) decision on Nov. 30 to issue permits — or Incidental Harassment Authorization — to five private companies for seismic airgun blasting, which are used to probe the ocean floor in search of oil and gas deposits.
The companies that won the permits are: TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Co. Asa; Schlumberger Ltd. subsidiary; WesternGeco Ltd., CGG Services US Inc.; Spectrum Geo Inc.; and a unit of ION Geophysical Corp.
Data from seismic surveys are used to locate potential sites for offshore oil and natural gas production, offshore wind structures, and find potential seafloor hazards and locate sand and gravel resources for beach restoration.
Before work can begin, the five firms must receive individual permits from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. It is expected those individual permits will be awarded in support of the Trump administration's fossil fuel agenda.
The OBX Chamber is the latest in a growing number of entities that are opposed to the use of seismic airguns and the expansion of offshore drilling
Opponents say impacts to marine mammals include:
• Temporary and permanent hearing loss
• Abandonment of habitat
• Disruption of mating and feeding
• Beach strandings
For whales and dolphins — which rely on their hearing to find food, communicate, and reproduce — being able to hear is a life or death matter, according to Oceana, which is working to halt the use of seismic airguns, and stop the expansion of offshore drilling.
Long-range impact, far-reaching opposition
Under the approved permits, the "blast zone" along the Atlantic coast is twice the size of California — from Cape May, New Jersey, through the Outer Banks, to Cape Canaveral, Florida.
"Seismic testing and offshore drilling is incompatible with our coast in North Carolina,” Todd Miller, executive director at North Carolina Coastal Federation, said in a statement. “There’s never a window that would be a good time for seismic testing to happen." Studies show that seismic affects the behaviors of marine mammals, fish and zooplankton, and seismic is harmful for fisheries. And on top of all that, it’s a precursor to offshore drilling which is strongly opposed here in North Carolina.”
As of Dec. 11, the governors of 13 states — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida — stand opposed to offshore drilling activities in the Atlantic. They are joined by more than 240 East Coast state municipalities; more than 1,500 local, state and federal bipartisan officials; an alliance representing more than 42,000 businesses and 500,000 fishing families; all three East Coast Fishery Management Councils; and commercial and recreational fishing interests, such as Southeastern Fisheries Association, Snook and Gamefish Foundation, Fisheries Survival Fund, Southern Shrimp Alliance, Billfish Foundation and International Game Fish Association.
On Dec. 7, a coalition of major public aquariums — including North Carolina Aquariums at Fort Fisher, Pine Knoll Shores, Roanoke Island and Jennette's Pier — publicly opposed the federal government’s pending issuance of permits to allow repeated seismic blasting along the East Coast.
How did we get here?
In January 2015, President Barack Obama unveiled his plan to open the southeastern Atlantic coast to oil and gas drilling. The decision was met with surprise and outrage from environmental groups.
Obama reversed course, and in November 2016, closed much of the Atlantic to oil and gas offshore drilling through 2022 as part of his administration's five-year plan for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
On Dec. 20, 2016, Obama double-downed and exercised his executive authority by designating the bulk of U.S.-owned waters in the Arctic Ocean and certain areas in the Atlantic as indefinitely off limits to oil and gas leasing.
The withdrawal areas encompassed 3.8 million acres in the north and mid-Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast and 115 million acres in the U.S. Arctic Ocean. Including previous presidential withdrawals, the action protected nearly 125 million acres in the offshore Arctic from future oil and gas activity.
On Jan. 5, 2017 — in the last days of his administration — Obama denied requests by energy companies to conduct seismic surveys in the Atlantic Ocean to map potential drilling sites for oil and natural gas, solidifying the president’s environmental legacy.
Supporters of offshore exploration and drilling were not pleased.
“The blanket denial of seismic survey permits is an unsurprising attempt to put another nail in the coffin of sensible energy exploration in the Atlantic,” Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, said at the time.
The Trump administration’s U.S. energy policy is more pro-oil than that of his predecessor.
In April 2017, President Trump issued an executive order to expedite permitting for harmful seismic airgun blasting, reversing the Obama administration’s decision to deny all pending permits for such activity in the Atlantic.
Supporters — including the International Association of Geophysical Contractors — argue that conducting a seismic survey is the safer alternative to exploratory drilling. Additionally, they argue that offshore drilling creates jobs and bolsters American energy dependence. Others maintain there is no scientific evidence that seismic surveys definitively harm marine life populations. Instead, they say opposition is rooted in an anti-oil and gas sentiment.
A May 2017 poll by Oceana, NRDC and the International Fund for Animal Welfare revealed that 76 percent of Americans support protecting marine mammals from threats, including injury and death resulting from offshore oil and gas drilling.
On Dec. 11, leading environmental groups sued the federal government to prevent seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic Ocean. The North Carolina Coastal Federation joined the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council Inc., Oceana, One Hundred Miles, Sierra Club, and Surfrider Foundation in filing a suit in U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina against Wilbur Ross, in his official capacity as the Secretary of Commerce; the National Marine Fisheries Service; and Chris Oliver, in his official capacity as the Assistant Administrator for Fisheries.
The Plaintiffs argue that seismic airgun blasting would harm marine life from zooplankton — the foundation of the ocean food chain — to fish, dolphin, and whales.
According to the suit, the nearly 850 combined days of around-the-clock activity greenlighted by the five authorizations amounts to "more than five million total seismic airgun blasts. By NMFS’s own estimates, the authorized surveys will injure and disturb whales and dolphins hundreds of thousands of times, including critically endangered North Atlantic right whales."
In total, the planned seismic surveys could harm 34 species of marine mammals, including five endangered and threatened whale populations, four species of endangered sea turtles, and many species of fish and invertebrates, according to the suit.
The suit maintains the NMFS failed to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement analyzing the significant adverse impacts of the authorized seismic surveys, and ignored laws in place to protect marine life — including The Endangered Species Act, The Marine Mammal Protection Act enacted in 1972, and National Environmental Policy Act, which prohibits activities like seismic surveys that can disturb, injure, or kill marine mammals. Instead, "it relied on flawed, outdated portions of a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement from 2014 and an inadequate Environmental Assessment."