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Obama Opens the East Coast to Seismic Blasting; Drilling to Come

Michael Jasny

Posted February 27, 2014

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Today the Obama administration released its long-awaited Environmental Impact Statement on oil and gas exploration off the east coast.  And not surprisingly, it is a capitulation to the forces of drill-baby-drill.  Within months, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will start issuing permits for seismic exploration, letting companies troll our coasts from New Jersey to Florida with arrays of high-powered airguns.

Airgun exploration is not only a gateway drug to offshore drilling but, as the scientific community has recognized, a major assault on the oceans in itself.  Imagine dynamite going off in your neighborhood every 10 seconds for days, weeks, and months on end.  Now imagine that you depend on your hearing to feed, mate, communicate, and do just about everything else necessary for survival.  That’s the situation that endangered whales, commercial fish, and other marine wildlife are facing with today’s announcement.  The video below shows a single airgun going off in a test pool; a large seismic array can harness more than twenty airguns going off at once.


Already industry has submitted nine applications from oil and gas companies and seismic contractors; together, those applications propose literally hundreds of thousands of miles of seismic blasting.  And no doubt there are others waiting in the wings.  Because of the enormous distances sound can travel in the ocean, the dangerous noise from this activity cannot remotely be confined to the waters off individual states that encourage it.  Some impacts—particularly on the great baleen whales—would extend many hundreds of miles, affecting states as far north as New England.  Fish and fisheries could be affected for tens of miles around every seismic ship.

The cynicism behind today’s announcement is how much it defers the hard decisions to later.  Given the sheer size of their environmental footprint, the only way to meaningfully reduce harm from seismic surveys is to limit them: to strictly limit the areas in which they can occur, or the amount of activity that can take place overall within a region.  BOEM has declined to do that, promising instead to consider these options when it looks at individual applications.  That and about fifty dollars will buy you a share of BP.

The scientific community, conservation community, Congressional reps, and fishermen have all called on the administration to put on the brakes, but to little avail.  Greener alternative technologies that could substantially cut the environmental footprint of airguns in many areas are already well into development and could be available for commercial use in three years or less.  Yet the administration is opening the floodgates now.

As I’ve said in the past, offshore oil is a snake oil cure.  Green-lighting seismic in the Atlantic is just one of many ways the federal government is coddling Big Oil and supporting its monopoly on our fuel supply.  The administration must not be allowed to sacrifice wildlife and the environment for this false promise. 


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Nancy sprowlsFeb 27 2014 07:31 PM

Y r they not considering the oceanlife and how it will affect them. Is the government that greedy that they r willing to destroy oceanlife. They need to find a better way that is better for all living beings...Every life is important.

Wietske HoekstraFeb 28 2014 02:16 AM


Dawn SchneebergerFeb 28 2014 09:04 AM

Please can we not get the leaders of these great countries to assess the damage to animals/mammals/fish before being forced into these decisions by money-grabbing companies. Use their own morals and empathy as if the damaged beings were their family members! All life is valuable - this is not negotiable.

Emily JenningsFeb 28 2014 09:35 AM

A few of your comments and the comments above are definitely not fact based. Seismic surveys have been done for years in South America and there hasn't been a single case of harm to wildlife. Additionally, these reports were done 30 years ago with no impact. The PEIS just released that you mention states the very thing you blast it for will not occur. Obviously incredibly huge safety measures must be taken when dealing with human impact. That's why there are marine biologist accompanying these surveying ships to minimize and prevent against harm to sea animals and the surrounding environment. I would try to shift your further posts and comments around a fact-based discussion. Offshore will open up opportunities and income for thousands of low-income workers, increase our oil and natural gas intake, decrease the cost of hundreds of goods and services that rely on them, and lessen our reliance on foreign oil. These impacts are larger than you think.

Michael BerndtsonFeb 28 2014 10:51 AM


If you're going to scold us environmental folks for being sensational or alarming in tone, at least scold with learned authority. Not like some independent PR contractor who did a quick look-see on the topic via wikipedia. Followed by, "this needs to happen because jobs and poor people." Or something like that.

Seismic surveys have been done on about every square inch of land and ocean floor here on planet earth. Seismic surveys even pre-date Cecil Green (one of the fathers of seismology), whose interest and services spurred modern geophysics and Texas Instruments. This was circa World War II. Some surveys are relatively impactless. Some of them are like holy cow, you want to do what again to shake the earth?!

I'm sure the author is familiar with the history and prevalence of finding oil and gas deposits with seismic surveys. The purpose of the post may have been to bring to our attention that its starting up in a big way off shore along the east coast. Marine life impacts are one concern. Exploring, producing and burning yet more oil and gas is another concern.

Michael JasnyFeb 28 2014 12:01 PM

To Emily: The idea that seismic surveys are harmless, like the idea that spills can be contained and controlled is a line that has been adopted by industry in its messaging. It is also, simply, untrue.

As Michael B. suggests, some low-energy geophysical surveys, such as echosounders that use frequencies at the limits of cetacean hearing (and well beyond the hearing capacities of sea turtles and many other species), can be undertaken at relatively low risk to the marine environment. But the high-energy airgun arrays used in 2D and 3D seismic surveys are a different kettle of fish. They have been shown to silence and mask baleen whale calls and lead whales to abandon habitat over enormous areas of ocean, in some cases hundreds of thousands of miles in size; have been shown to displace some species of commercial fish over thousands of square miles, with dramatic declines in catch; and closer in, can cause temporary and permanent hearing loss, which is a significant impact on marine species for which hearing is the primary sense. And that’s for starters.

Yes, airguns were used decades ago in the western Atlantic, before anyone was monitoring for marine mammal impacts and ocean noise arose as a significant conservation issue. But the science has wised up, and so should we.

Andreea StefaninFeb 28 2014 12:09 PM


Why is it always the same human centered argument? Prices go lower, workers get money, human communities benefit etc. I know that our life spans as humans are not so long, therefore it is hard to really comprehend a long and very long term thinking and planning. But can you honestly believe and admit that bombing the oceans is safe, causes minimal damages? Ecosystems have been studied in detail and we have come to understand how fragile they can be if disturbed. What we might not realize yet is that we are part of those ecosystems, we live within them and will eventually colapse with them. We are not a superior entity living outside nature's circle, to go on our big boats, drill the oceans for profit of this generation and maybe the next and then ignorantly believe that destroying this planet will cause no harm. It is a limited thinking, both in time as in space. Causing a trophic cascade by killing one very important part of the ocean life, the threatened already whales, will generate huge damages for human communities on islands around the world relying upon fishing. That if the human argument is what interests you. But, after all, it is not about the human species. As someone noticed above, these whales and even the tinest krill in the ocean have been there way before we have developed. We ended up being an incredibly rude and intrusive species, let alone full of vanity thinking still like the british aristocrats in the 19th century that God was spinning the Earth so that they can get a good night sleep...

Bob PFeb 28 2014 02:58 PM

I shocked that this is going to happen. We have plenty of gas and oil. So much we export it to the world market. It has to be the pressure for special interest. Obama does not make the decision alone. I'm not happy!

gondaMar 1 2014 03:35 PM

To be honest, I am not surprised this is going ahead. We have pretty much mutilated the rest of the planet already. So 'why not' the oceans next. Soon, (if we don't suffer some major catastrophe - due to our mismanagement in the name of greed) we will be doing the same out in space.

Really, we have totally lost sight of our humanity. This is not anymore about being 'environmental' folk - it has gone beyond that.

Everything that is 'done' in the name of 'creating jobs', feeding the starving - it does not appear to be working very well.

linda sramekMar 1 2014 05:05 PM


joey racanoMar 1 2014 08:52 PM

In the NYT yesterday they said there is no evidence seismic air guns ever hurt a whale. I have the logs of seismic ship captains off California commenting in their entries that they had used up their quota of 'take' almost immediately, and would be asking to have their limit of Humpbacks increased so they could get more mapping done before reaching their take limit.

Joey Racano, Director
Ocean Outfall Group

On Facebook:

Stop the Diablo Canyon Seismic Testing

Stop Navy Sonar Testing

Elaine WalshMar 2 2014 07:45 AM

Governments have no morals, they just see money, money, money in their own pockets, pockets, pockets. It's the same the world over. in UK we have the same.

LindsayMar 2 2014 11:20 PM

This is horrifying! And Emily is incorrect! Here is an article from the NY Time discussing the impact on the sea animals. We all need to stand up to these money mongers and put our foot down on these environmental disasters cause by bad choices for the wrong reasons. It there a petition set up yet to let Obsma know that we the people are against this?

Mark TysonMar 4 2014 08:11 AM

To those who say this form of seismic 'prospecting' is harmless I say get in the water 1 mile or more from a test and stick your head under water. Then, and only then, you can tell the world how harmless it is.

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