On Whales, Oil and a Lot of Noise

We just can't stop harassing whales in our quest for fuel. Once we hunted the leviathans for their fat, which we used, among other things, for lighting lamps, until the invention of the oil well took the pressure off. Now we're about to aggravate them yet again, but instead of harpooning whales, the US government is keen on blasting airguns - loud enough to be heard for 100 miles underwater - in an effort to find hydrocarbon riches hidden under the seafloor.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management estimates that such "seismic testing" in the Atlantic Ocean would injure up to 138,500 whales and dolphins, causing temporary and permanent hearing loss, abandonment of habitat and the disruption of vital behaviors such as mating and feeding. The airgun blasts have also been shown to impact coastal fisheries, a real concern for the 108 fishing communities dotting the coast of the proposed testing area stretching from Delaware to central Florida.

BOEM's most recent Five Year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing plan called for seismic testing in the Atlantic, and the agency put out a draft impact statement last year in which it lists the options for and impacts of testing in the region. Comments closed this past July, but activists and fishermen are still pressuring the Obama administration to reject the plan. Now six US senators have gotten into the act by recently sending a letter to the president urging him to reconsider seismic testing.  As the letter explains,

In addition to moving the region closer to risky offshore oil drilling, seismic testing could injure or kill thousands of marine mammals and fish, including endangered species. Seismic testing involves firing intensive blasts of compressed air - almost as loud as explosives - every 10 to 12 seconds, 24 hours a day, for weeks and months on end.

So it's not just concern about the immediate impact seismic testing can have on marine life, but the larger issue of taking one step closer to offshore oil and gas production along the Atlantic Coast.

While BOEM did not approve offshore oil and gas leasing in the Atlantic Ocean through 2017, allowing seismic testing does open the door for the industry in time for the agency's next five-year plan. And that's a possibility that even BOEM warns could cause "significant potential conflicts between oil and gas activity and other important (outer continental shelf) uses in these areas, including military, fishing, and vessel traffic uses as well as environmental and infrastructure concerns."

But whales and other marine life already dealing with the growing cacophony of industrializing seas could be first to feel the impacts of our ever-expanding quest for oil and gas.


Author's Note: Power plants are also responsible for damage to ocean life.  Plants with antiquated "once-through" cooling systems withdraw massive amounts of water from rivers, lakes and estuaries to cool the steam used to create electricity. These withdrawals, which add up to about 135 trillion gallons per year nationwide, kill trillions of fish and other aquatic organisms, particularly small, fragile eggs and larvae, altering the aquatic food chain and ecosystems. Learn more on our Power Plants Kill Fish page.