ASBURY PARK, N.J. — To hunt for undersea oil and natural gas, energy companies pound the sea floor with pulses of sound — blasts of compressed air, thousands of times louder than a jet airliner at takeoff.
“It’s like sitting in your living room with dynamite going off every 10 seconds,” said Nancy Sopka, an advocate with the Washington-based environmental group Oceana, which opposes the high-tech prospecting in the Atlantic.
It’s been an issue quietly simmering among conservation groups and the fishing industry, since they saw a draft environmental impact statement from the U.S. Department of Interior that estimated more than 138,000 dolphins, whales and sea turtles could be affected if the high-powered sound surveys go on for eight years.
“Imagine if the fishermen proposed to do this (injure mammals by accident). They get into trouble if they take one,” said Cynthia A. Zipf of Clean Ocean Action, a Sandy Hook, N.J.-Based environmental group.
Opponents of offshore drilling are exaggerating the danger to marine life, said James Benton, executive director of the New Jersey Petroleum Council.
“Noise from seismic surveys is comparable to the sound of a sperm whale ‘echo-locating’ for prey and to naturally occurring and other ocean sound sources, including wind and wave action, rain, and shipping operations,” Benton said in a statement. “The study actually said that the potential for adverse effects on marine mammals is minor. Opponents of domestic-energy production and economic development incorrectly present that as a projection of injury and death.”.
Seismic surveys already are regulated by the federal government under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, and “operators make great efforts to prevent potential impacts on marine mammals,” Benton said.
There’s no explicit plans yet to drill off the East Coast, but the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement prepared the impact statement to pave the way for prospecting. “They want to get the information back (from surveys) so they can make the decision on opening the Atlantic to leases,” Sopka said.
But at the moment there is not a lot of pressure from the industry to start hunting for ocean oil, said Tom Kloza of the Oil Price Information Service, an industry news source.
“I don’t think the Baltimore Canyon or anywhere offshore of the middle Atlantic states is a subject of hot pursuit for those looking for oil,” said Kloza. There is much more interest in western shale formations and the deepwater Gulf of Mexico fields, he said.
“There just isn’t much happening in the northern Atlantic,” Kloza said.
Long opposed in principle to oil and gas exploration off the Atlantic coast, the groups are trying to marshal political pressure to prevent the Interior Department from permitting seismic tests, a decision that will come up for consideration a third time in January. The proposed testing program could cover the sea floor from a few miles south of Cape May, N.J., To mid-Florida.
Given the strength of previous political opposition to oil exploration here, “they’ve given up on the Jersey Shore. But sound travels,” Zipf said.
In seismic testing, a survey ship tows an air gun and acoustic array, which picks up sound waves reflected from the sea floor. The immense power of that booming penetrates the bottom and yields acoustic profile images of what lies under the sea floor — geologic formations of rock, and if it’s there, petroleum or natural gas deposits.
But that racket can hurt marine mammals such as whales that are very sensitive to sound in the marine environment, some scientists say. In extreme cases, loud, man-made sounds have been suspected in whale deaths and strandings.
What’s not well known is what other effects acoustic surveys could have on the wider ocean ecosystem, said Jessica Coakley, a fishery management specialist with the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
“Water is a very efficient conductor of sound,” and the air-gun blasts will be felt by sea life over a wide area, she said.
Air-gun blasts generate about 190 decibels of sound in the air and up to 250 decibels underwater, Sopka said. By comparison, a jet engine is around 140 decibels, but because the scale is logarithmic, the intensity increases by orders of magnitude as the number of decibels increases. At the upper end, the blasts are comparable to hearing a large cannon blast at close range.
The area proposed for surveying “is basically the entire continental shelf,” the relatively shallower ocean close to land, Coakley said. “In some places the water is only 50 meters deep (about 160 feet). … That can make the entire water column in the lethal range.”.
To make their case, the anti-airgun groups are using publicity materials with images of dolphins and whales, the poster children — or mammals — of the ocean environmental movement.
This summer an outbreak of fatal viral disease among dolphins left dead and dying animals on beaches along the East Coast.
Coakley said it’s important to think about the effects of seismic testing on fish and bottom-dwelling animals, such as scallops and surf clams, that are a large part of the region’s $535 million annual commercial seafood industry. “We don’t know what all the impacts will be — all the animals that live on the sea floor,” she said.
The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, a quasi-governmental board that sets annual fishing limits and rules, was alarmed by what it saw as insufficient information in the draft environmental impact statement. It wants the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to do a wider-ranging study, Coakley said.
Changes are already coming. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is updating its guidelines for judging how man-made sounds — seismic testing, ship noise, Navy sonar tests — can affect marine mammals. One likely change will drop the threshold level at which noise is considered to pose dangers to ocean wildlife.
For years NOAA had the threshold level at 160 decibels — much louder than a jet engine — but the new guidelines could drop that threshold to 120 decibels, about the sound of a chainsaw.
Oceana is suggesting to the Obama administration that a new environmental impact statement should wait for the new advice on sound thresholds.
The last possibilities for granting federal sea floor leases to actually drill off Virginia were canceled in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Another round of leases won’t happen until at least 2018, “so what’s the rush?” Sopka said.
Zipf, a 29-year veteran of fighting ocean dumping and offshore energy development, said she’s learned to trust more in political organizing than government process.
“It’s almost an art form for these environmental impact statements to get around the problems, to get what the applicant wants,” she said. “I believe in the power of the people. We are the ones who are going to stop this.”.