Seismic Surveys for Oil


The Obama administration’s 2014 decision to open up offshore oil and natural gas exploration in the Atlantic Ocean creates not only long-term risks from climate change and oil spills, but also more immediate threats to ocean life. The plan allows seismic testing that the federal government admits could kill or injure 138,000 dolphins and whales, including nine endangered North Atlantic right whales, whose calving grounds are on the southern edge of the proposed zone. In total, a Department of the Interior report on the seismic program acknowledges, the plan would cause 13.5 million instances of harm to marine mammals

Seismic exploration surveys use arrays of high-powered airguns to search for oil and generate the loudest human sounds in the ocean, short of those made by explosives. The blasts — which can reach more than 250 decibels and be heard for miles — can also cause hearing loss in marine mammals, disturb essential behaviors such as feeding and breeding, mask communications between individual whales and dolphins, and reduce catch rates of commercial fish.

Seismic surveys involve powerful airguns blasting the seas at 10-second intervals and measuring the echoes off the sea floor to help map offshore oil and natural gas fields — in the process disturbing, injuring and killing marine mammals and other wildlife.

Seismic testing involves blasting the seafloor with airguns (a kind of powerful horn) every 10 seconds and measuring the echoes with long tubes to map offshore oil and gas reserves. While a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management factsheet describes the technology as “state-of-the-art computer mapping systems,” seismic testing is actually a blunt-force weapon introduced in the 1920s that was augmented by computer analysis starting in the 1950s.

Expanding offshore drilling into the Atlantic creates a higher risk for oil spills, more polluted beaches and waters, more industrial equipment, and fewer pristine places for wildlife and people. Extracting and burning the 4.72 billion barrels of oil and 37.51 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that the federal government estimates is under the Atlantic would also significantly worsen the climate crisis. So there’s no good reason to be subjecting ocean life to these deadly seismic blasts.

The Center has been working hard to save marine mammals from deadly and disturbing seismic surveys since the early 2000s, and we’re still at it. Learn more about seismic testing in other regions, like the Gulf of Mexico, as well as other forms of ocean noise now.

 

North Atlantic right whale photo courtesy NOAA