The U.S. Interior Department opened the door last week to the first searches in decades for oil and gas off the Atlantic coast, recommending that undersea seismic surveys proceed, though with a host of safeguards to shield marine life from much of their impact.
The recommendation is likely to be adopted after a period of public comment and over objections by environmental activists who say it will be ruinous for the climate and sea life alike, according to The New York Times.
The American Petroleum Institute called the recommendation a critical step toward bolstering the nation’s energy security, predicting that oil and gas production in the region could create 280,000 new jobs and generate $195 billion in private investment.
But activists disagreed.
Allowing exploration “could be a death sentence for many marine mammals and is needlessly turning the Atlantic Ocean into a blast zone,” Jacqueline Savitz, a vice president at the conservation group Oceana, said in a statement on Thursday.
Oceana and other groups have campaigned for months against the Atlantic survey plans, citing Interior Department calculations that the intense noise of seismic exploration could kill and injure thousands of dolphins and whales, according to the Times report.
Although the assessment released on Thursday repeats those estimates, it also largely dismisses them, stating that they employ multiple worst-case scenarios and ignore measures by humans and the mammals themselves to avoid harm.
Many marine scientists say the estimates of death and injury are at best seriously inflated. “There’s no argument that some of these sounds can harm animals, but it’s blown out of proportion,” Arthur N. Popper, who heads the University of Maryland’s laboratory of aquatic bioacoustics, told the Times.
How the noise affects sea mammals’ behavior in the long term — an issue about which little is known — is a much greater concern, he said.
A formal decision to proceed with surveys would reopen a swath off the East Coast stretching from Delaware to Cape Canaveral, Fla., that has been closed to petroleum exploration since the early 1980s.
Loud sounds such as seismic blasts appear to cause stress to marine mammals, just as they do to humans. Experts say seismic exploration could alter feeding and mating habits, for example, or simply drown out whales’ and dolphins’ efforts to communicate or find one another. But the true impact has yet to be measured; there is no easy way to gauge the long-term effect of sound on animals that are constantly moving.
“These animals are living for decades, if not centuries,” said Aaron Rice, the director of Cornell University’s bioacoustics research program. “The responses you see are not going to manifest themselves in hours or days or weeks. We’re largely speculating as to what the consequences will be. But in my mind, the absence of data doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.”