A little information about a deep subject

As this newsletter goes out the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM) is taking public comments on “Geological and Geophysical activities” of the Atlantic coast of the US, from the tip of Delaware to mid-Florida. This area, along with the Pacific coast, the Eastern Gulf, and much of the Arctic has been under a drilling moratorium since the 1980’s due to some pretty bad history and a strong environmental movement in the US.

This changed in 2008 under the Bush administration when the moratorium was lifted, opening up vast leasing tracts to exploitation – subject to public review and environmental compliance.

But if you hadn’t noticed, the Oilmen are fed up with environmental constraints so they’re plowing ahead under the assumption that there will be “drilling on all four coasts” in the near future. Their assumption seems to be supported by BOEM in their Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) with a tone of “not if, but how much.”

Data from seismic survey

Future drilling aside, what is being proposed is issuing permits to private geophysical survey companies to survey US taxpayer-owned assets so they can sell their data to multinational extraction and production companies (so we can continue to drive our very own cars).

There are a number of technologies under scrutiny, but the most prolific and most controversial is the use of seismic airguns towed in arrays of 3 to 20 devices. Airguns kick out a blast of compressed air creating an impulse that penetrates the ocean bottom, bouncing off of geological structures and returning a signal that can be assembled into geological maps.

The impulses occur every 10 – 15 seconds for hours, days, weeks, and even months on end. In some cases they can be heard thousands of kilometers from the source, and with over 50 concurrent surveys going on world-wide, in some areas of the ocean they are the dominant contributor to ambient noise.

Seismic survey vessel

The controversy is around the impacts. There is ample evidence that that airgun surveys disrupt foraging and migration of baleen whales, and there is quite a bit of evidence that the surveys can also disrupt fisheries. Stranding incidents and mortality in whales and giant squid have occurred which have been correlated to airgun surveys, and there is an ongoing mass stranding in Peru right now that may be correlated to seismic surveys in that area.

So what’s the controversy about deploying a technology that is known to be so disruptive? It seems that the disruption is not universal; that in some cases fish don’t appear to spook and scatter, and the response of some marine mammals is ambiguous. And, well, all that oil sure is appealing, and we don’t see mass mortality, and “these animals might just be getting used to it,” and…

These are some of the contentions put forth in the Atlantic “G&G” DEIS. But given the recent paper by Rosalind Rolland and Susan Parks implicating shipping noise and metabolic stress in (endangered) North Atlantic Right whales, it would stand to reason that we should lead with the precautionary principal here.

Although precaution has never been the hallmark of the Oil Industry, and, well, all that oil sure is appealing…

Seismic surveys are “up” right now; not just on the US Eastern Seaboard, but pretty much around the globe. As long as we continue to fuel our civilization with petroleum they will be a fact of life. It is likely that the technologies can be tailored to be less disruptive, but we must push the discussion in that direction for these efforts to take place.

We will be sending out a couple of newsletters this month exploring aspects of the Geological and Geophysical survey technologies and industry. It is really big, and really deep.

Meanwhile you might want to read the summary of the Atlantic G&G DEIS and send in your comments on a quick comment page provided by Ocean Hero Richard “not on my coast” Charter.

3 comments for “A little information about a deep subject

  1. Steven White
    May 7, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    Hello Michael, thank you for all your work. FYI here on the Central Coast of California and partially within the Monterey Marine Sanctuary, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is planning blasting our ocean waters during seismic survey this fall (during gray whale migration) in order to continue with NRC application to extend Diablo Canyon Atomic Waste Generating Station for another 20 years beyond original designed lifespan. Any ideas? Kind regards, Steve

    • September 7, 2012 at 11:06 am

      This is a sticky problem unfortunately. I’d like to see the DCPP decommissioned, and one of the ways to advance this is to know more about the fault-lines under it. There are other surveying technologies that are much less invasive, such as gravity gradiometer surveys, but these may not be appropriate for the fine details of this site. What this technique might be able to do is hone in on areas of interest so that the airgun surveys could be concentrated in a smaller area. see http://www.bellgeo.com/ (look for FTG), http://www.arkex.com/ (look for BlueQube) and http://www.fugro.com/ (look for Falcon)

      This is an entirely passive technology and yields mass difference in the substrate. Presuming that the plates include various materials – shale, granite, water for example, these surveys could reveal tectonic instabilities in the area. I get a sense that this issue is still very much in play.

  2. jean Donnelly
    May 14, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    Thank you for addressing this important issue. Marine mammals need to be protected from ocean noise.

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