ST. AUGUSTINE BEACH, Fla. – The Eastern Seaboard is being opened to offshore oil and gas exploration for the first time in decades with the Obama administration's approval Friday of sonic cannons that can pinpoint energy deposits deep beneath the ocean floor.
The decision dismays environmentalists worried about the immediate impact of the sonic cannons, which shoot sound waves 100 times louder than a jet engine through waters shared by endangered whales and turtles, as well as the offshore drilling that now requires such sophisticated mapping technology as a first step. The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management disclosed its final approval first to The Associated Press ahead of an announcement later Friday.
The approval opens the Eastern Seaboard from the coast of Delaware down to Florida to exploration by energy companies that are preparing to apply for drilling leases in 2018, when a moratorium is set to expire. The bureau contends it has found a way to proceed while minimizing deaths and injuries of marine life, although it acknowledges that thousands of sea creatures will be harmed.
"The bureau has identified a path forward that addresses the need to update the nearly four-decade-old data in the region while protecting marine life and cultural sites," acting BOEM Director Walter Cruickshank said in a statement. "The bureau's decision reflects a carefully analyzed and balanced approach that will allow us to increase our understanding of potential offshore resources while protecting the human, marine, and coastal environments."
The sonic cannons are already in use in the western Gulf of Mexico, off Alaska and other offshore oil operations around the world. They are towed behind boats, sending strong pulses of sound into the ocean every 10 seconds or so. The pulses reverberate beneath the sea floor and bounce back to the surface, where they are measured by hydrophones. Computers then translate the data into high resolution, three-dimensional images.
"It's like a sonogram of the earth," said Andy Radford, a petroleum engineer at the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas trade association in Washington DC. "You can't see the oil and gas, but you can see the structures in the earth that might hold oil and gas."
The surveys can have other benefits, including mapping habitats for marine life, identifying solid undersea flooring for wind energy turbines, and locating spots where sand can be collected for beach restoration. But fossil fuel mostly funds this research, and the data in many cases will be held as energy company secrets.
The sonic cannons are often fired continually for weeks or months, and multiple mapping projects are expected to be operating simultaneously as companies gather competitive data. To get permits for this work, companies will need whale-spotting observers onboard, and undersea acoustic tests will be required before each mapping trip. Certain habitats will be closed during birthing or feeding seasons.
Still, the sounds -- which water amplifies by orders of magnitude -- pose unavoidable dangers for whales, fish and sea turtles that also use sound to communicate across hundreds of miles.
More than 120,000 people or groups sent comments to the government, which held hearings and spent years developing these rules. The bureau's environmental impact study estimates that more than 138,000 sea creatures could be harmed, including nine of the 500 north Atlantic right whales remaining in the world.
Of foremost concern are endangered species like these whales, which give birth off the shores of northern Florida and southern Georgia before migrating north each year. Since the cetaceans are so scarce, any impact from this intense noise pollution on feeding or communications could have long-term effects, Scott Kraus, a right whale expert at the John H. Prescott Marine Laboratory in Boston, said.
"No one has been allowed to test anything like this on right whales," Kraus said of the seismic cannons. "(The Obama administration) has authorized a giant experiment on right whales that this country would never allow researchers to do."
This area of the Atlantic has been closed to oil exploration since the 1980s, when some exploratory wells were drilled. It has never had significant offshore production. And now, with advances in undersea mapping technology, companies expect to be able to pinpoint significant oil and gas reserves.
"One thing we find is, the more you get out and drill and explore to confirm what you see in the seismic -- you end up finding more oil and gas than what you think is out there when you started," Radford said.
Opposition to oil development has been abundant along the coast, where people worry that oil will displace fisheries and tourism, along with whales, dolphins and turtles. More than 16 communities from Florida to New Jersey have passed resolutions opposing or raising concerns about the seismic testing and the offshore drilling it will enable. In St. Augustine in north Florida, beach tourism and fishing fuel the economy, and rare turtles come ashore to lay their eggs.
While some states pass drilling bans, the area being studied is farther offshore in federal waters -- beyond the reach of state law.
"Florida has already felt the devastating effects of an uncontrolled oil release with the Deepwater Horizon event of which cleanup efforts are still on-going," said John Morris, a county commissioner whose constituency includes St. Augustine Beach. "Any oil spill, large or small, off the coast of St. Johns County, would greatly affect the county's economy."