Airgun surveys are the real gateway to Arctic Oil

Finally after a whole season of a frightening “comedy of errors,” Shell Oil has postponed a large part of their Arctic exploratory drilling project until next year. They will be building infrastructure in the time they have remaining this season, but for the time being their claws are withdrawn.

Shell’s foibles in the Arctic garnered a lot of attention because of the missteps, misrepresentations, accidents, and operational errors leading up to their change of plans, but also because for many people their exploratory drilling in the Artic represents the opening volley in an Arctic “Oil Klondike” that will be hard to restrain.

With all eyes on the Shell debacle we almost missed the real gateway to the proposed Arctic Oil Boom: ION Geophysical’ s request of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for an ‘Incidental Harassment Authorization‘ to survey 80,900 sq. miles of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas with seismic airguns.

If ION is permitted to “take by harassment” 5000 beluga whales, 250 bowheads, and 60,000 ice seals, they will have the data on oil and gas deposits which they can then sell to any fossil fuel outfit willing to try their hand at extracting hydrocarbons from the Arctic.

Seismic ship towing a small array through sheet ice

Seismic ship towing a small array through sheet ice

We just caught wind of this last Thursday, and unfortunately the close of public comments on the proposal was Monday Sept. 17. We did provide comments, but given the limited time we had our comments are more philosophical than a line-by-line critique of the request.

The overarching premise of our objection to the proposed surveys is that they will disrupt a bioacoustic habitat of which we know next to nothing. Given that the Arctic is dark much of the time, and that until recently much of it has been covered with ice for many thousands of years, it is likely that there are acoustical adaptations by animals that are probably still unknown to science.

These animals play roles in the Arctic environment which we can’t even guess. So adding the insult of the seismic airgun surveys to all of the other dynamic changes in the Arctic (rapid melting of the polar cap, increased shipping traffic, expansion of extraction industries, and exploratory wells), it is likely that animals both known and unknown are already being subjected to the synergistic impacts of stressors that will only be aggravated by seismic airgun surveys.

I suspect that it will take some other disaster to precipitate the retreat of the Oilmen from the Arctic. We can contribute to their retreat by using much less of their products. But in the meanwhile I hope the “Office of Protected Resources” permits department at NMFS takes a long, deep look at the larger consequences of what is being proposed. It would be unfortunate to find out how much we’ve lost after the fact − with little to show for it but a robust stock index for the Oilmen.