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Seismic Testing Approvals Reignite Debate About Offshore Drilling

an offshore drilling operation in the Gulf of Mexico
Creative Commons

The conversation about offshore drilling has intensified after the Trump Administration appeared to give initial approval for seismic testing in the Atlantic.

The seismic blasts would map the sea floor for potential oil and gas deposits, which is a key step toward drilling operations. Energy industry groups are praising the decision while environmental groups are suing to block it.

"The sound is produced at the surface, travels down through the water, hits the bottom, goes down into the bottom, bounces off of hard rock, soft rock, oil and deposits, comes back up through the water column, and then back to a bunch of receivers or streamers that come off the seismic survey vessel," says Doug Nowacek of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment.

Nowacek describes a sesimic blast as the loudest sound that humans produce in the ocean. It is about as loud as a gunshot, and goes off about every 10 seconds, sometimes for months at a time. 

There's evidence that those sounds affect the behaviors of marine wildlife. Studies from Duke and UNC Chapel Hill showed fish abandoned an artificial reef where seismic testing was happening, and it wasn't clear how long it took for them to come back.

"We don't think it would ever be worth it to drill for oil in the Atlantic," said Catherine Wannamaker, senior attorney at the Southern Enviornmental Law Center, one of the groups suing over the new permits.

Their complaint says the move fails to protect marine wildlife, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale, but Wannamaker says the risks also outweigh any benefits of finding a new source of oil or gas.

"We think the coasts of our states are too special and too pristine to ever drill. And if you're never going to drill here, you don't need to do this first step of seismic testing. It's just an unnecessary harm to a whole host of species," Wannamaker says.

David McGowan, executive director of the North Carolina Petroleum Council, says he believes conversations about offshore drilling in the context of seismic testing are premature. 

"The opponents don't want to know what our resources are, how much is there or where it's located because they're scared of what the answers might tell us," McGowan said.

"We believe that, as part of a national energy strategy, at the very least that it's prudent to know what our resources are and be able to make informed decisions," he said.

It's not just environmental groups and scientists that oppose seismic testing. Nearly all coastal communities - town councils and county commissions - in North Carolina have passed resolutions against offshore drilling. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper opposes it. And when newly elected candidates take office in January, every East Coast governor will have gone on record saying they oppose offshore drilling in their states.

The seismic testing permits would allow five companies to test waters off the coast from Delaware to Florida. They need one more round of approvals before they can actually start the seismic blasts.

Will Michaels is WUNC's Weekend Host and Reporter.
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