Image by Gabe Raggio from Pixabay

Deep reaching sonic blasts used in the Gulf to find oil have come under fire for the damage they do to aquatic life. This has some analogy to the problem the Navy had with similar actions in the oceans which hurt whales.

A survey ship towing a seismic air gun and acoustic receivers used to search for undersea oil and gas formations via seismic shock waves. 

Environmental groups sued the federal government Thursday over the Trump administration’s easing of rules that had limited use of deep-penetration seismic blasts to search for oil and gas deposits at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. The petroleum industry credits the technology with detecting vast reserves of oil and gas. But the 250-decibel blasts, which are louder than the detonation of a pound of dynamite, can disorient, injure or kill marine animals, from the largest – including whales and dolphins – to the krill and other tiny critters that serve as the foundation of the Gulf’s food web, scientists say. Of particular concern is a newly discovered but almost extinct species of whale that lives only in the Gulf. The Rice’s whale, found to be a distinct species only a few months ago, likely has a population of fewer than 50.

A Rice’s whale, formerly known as a Bryde’s whale, swims in the Gulf of Mexico.  PHOTO FROM NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION

The suit was filed by the National Resources Defense Council in conjunction with others and is using the Marine Mammal Act and others citing the dereliction of duty in protecting these animals.

The lawsuit, filed in Greenbelt, Maryland, alleges that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration violated the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and National Environmental Policy Act when it approved the expanded blasting in late 2020. It says the government failed to prescribe legally required “reasonable and prudent alternatives” to protect the Rice’s whale, also known as the ‘Gulf of Mexico whale,’ from seismic surveys. The suit also says the agency violated marine mammal protection standards when it asserted that only “small numbers” of marine mammals will be killed and that the effects on those species will be “negligible.” The National Resources Defense Council filed the suit in partnership with New Orleans-based Healthy Gulf, Center for Biological Diversity, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Surfrider Foundation. Michael Jasny, a marine mammal protection specialist with the National Resources Defense Council, said the government abandoned its commitment to protecting the marine environment in favor of the fossil fuel industry. “The agency should be fighting to save endangered whales, not auctioning off their last chances for survival to the oil and gas industry,” he said.

How seismic air gun surveys are conducted offshore. 

NOAA acknowledged the suit but offered no comment as they do not talk about current cases.

Seismic surveys use powerful air guns, usually towed behind ships, that blast the seas at 10-second intervals and measure the echoes off the sea floor to help map oil and natural gas fields. The American Petroleum Institute, which likens seismic air guns to “ultrasounds of the earth,” credits the technology with identifying vast oil and natural gas deposits that had gone undetected by other surveys. In 1987, Gulf surveys estimated fewer than 10 billion barrels of untapped oil. But with seismic air guns, oil companies in 2011 updated their estimates to 48 billion barrels, almost a fivefold increase, the institute said. The growing use of seismic surveys lead to a previous lawsuit by the National Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups. A settlement reached in 2013 established the first environmental safeguards for the technology, including making some sensitive areas of the Gulf off-limits, protections for at-risk species and the use of listening devices in hopes of ensuring whales were not harmed.

Krill, shrimp-like zooplankton, is a food source for many species. Seismic air gun surveys have been found to kill thousands of krill with each blast.  PHOTO BY BETH SIMMONS VIA FLICKR

The Trump administration had loosened the rules on seismic gun use at the oil industries request.

In December, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, then led by a Donald Trump appointee, rolled back those rules, reducing protective buffer zones and distance requirements between air gun vessels. The administration rejected proposals that would have further eased air gun effects in areas still recovering from the BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in 2010. The government predicted the expansion of seismic surveys would likely harm marine mammals in the Gulf more than 8 million times over five years. This week’s lawsuit was filed as President Joe Biden’s administration reviews the government’s oil and gas leasing and permitting practices in federal waters and lands. “Wreaking this kind of havoc to find new fossil fuels makes zero sense as the climate crisis accelerates, and we need Biden officials to stop allowing new offshore drilling activity,” said Kristen Monsell, a Center for Biological Diversity lawyer.

Seismic surveys use powerful air guns that blast the seas at 10-second intervals and measure the echoes off the sea floor to help map offshore oil and natural gas fields. In the process, the blasts disturb, injure and kill marine wildlife.

Once again environmental concerns come up against oil. The main difference now is that a new administration is more environmentally friendly. We will see what NOAA finally determines.

Oil exploration method under fire
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