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Tina Casey headshot

U.S. Atlantic Coast Safe From 'Safe' Seismic Testing, For Now

By Tina Casey

It seems President Barack Obama aims to cement his environmental legacy during his final weeks in office, and the latest move is a big one. On Friday, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management formally denied permits for oil and gas seismic testing along the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf, from Delaware down to Florida.

Oil and gas activities have not been conducted anywhere along the Atlantic Coast since the 1980s, and it looks like the industry will be in a state of suspended animation for at least a few years more.

A huge win for Atlantic Coast businesses

The environmental organization Oceana is among those following the seismic testing issue. And it was out with a press release practically before the ink dried on the Obama administration's announcement.

As described by Oceana, the type of proposed testing -- seismic airgun blasting -- is a lengthy, invasive procedure that puts marine mammals at risk, disrupts fisheries (both directly and by altering migration patterns), and can kill fish eggs and larvae.

After praising BOEM's decision to deny the permits, Oceana toted up some relevant numbers:

"As of today, more than 120 East Coast municipalities, over 1,200 elected officials, and an alliance representing over 35,000 businesses and 500,000 fishing families have publicly opposed offshore drilling and/or seismic airgun blasting. These individuals and groups understand that nearly 1.4 million jobs and more than $95 billion in gross domestic product are at risk if dangerous oil activities occur in the Atlantic Ocean."

One indicator of the intense opposition to the permits was demonstrated by the first meeting of the newly formed Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast last September. The meeting drew attendees representing more than 7,000 businesses from New Jersey to Georgia.

The driving force behind the Alliance is the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce. Its President and CEO Fred Knapp had this to say about seismic testing:

“Seismic testing is not a high-profile issue like offshore drilling ... But it is the destructive demon seed that grows up into the deservedly-feared offshore drilling. Atlantic Coast businesses will not let that seed be planted just so seismic testing companies can reap millions in profits from the oil industry.”

Why seismic testing?

According to BOEM, oil and gas activity along the Atlantic Coast has historically been negligible, so it's fair to ask why there was any recent interest in seismic testing to begin with.

Starting in 1976, the agency (a division of the Department of the Interior) held ten oil and gas lease sales. Approximately 100 wells of various types were drilled in the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf. But within a just few years, it became apparent that the area was not commercially viable. All of the wells were abandoned by 1984.

A lot has changed since then.

The American Petroleum Institute, which is naturally interested in Atlantic oil and gas activity, has promoted seismic testing as a relatively safe, low-risk method for exploration. API offers this explainer for the renewed interest in Atlantic waters:

"... The last surveys of the Atlantic OCS took place about 30 years ago. Since that time, technological advances have dramatically improved our ability to pinpoint likely reservoirs, which makes existing resource estimates in that area out of date. New surveys using state-of-the-art techniques and technology would provide a better understanding of the oil and natural gas resource potential in the Atlantic OCS."

The latest BOEM update on oil and gas reserves in the Outer Continental Shelf indicates the Atlantic waters could be ripe for the picking under current exploration and drilling technology. While not as vast as those in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic reserves are significant.

BOEM to Atlantic drillers: No testing, for now

Despite the huge potential at hand, BOEM exercised its environmental stewardship role to deny permission for testing. The agency explained its reasoning in a brief but firm press release.

First and foremost, the entire Atlantic Program Area under the agency's jurisdiction will be off the list for oil and gas leasing until 2022. That includes the two areas where the seismic testing was proposed, the Mid-Atlantic (Delaware, Virginia and North Carolina) and South Atlantic (South Carolina, Georgia and the northeastern coast of Florida).

In other words, BOEM argues, there is no immediate need to conduct tests because companies can't obtain leases for at least five years.

The industry could counter-argue that tests are needed now for long-term planning purposes, but it appears that BOEM does not ascribe to API's views on the potential for harm:

"... Guided by an abundance of caution, we believe that the value of obtaining the geophysical and geological information from new airgun seismic surveys in the Atlantic does not outweigh the potential risks of those surveys’ acoustic pulse impacts on marine life ..."

BOEM also drew a distinction between deep penetration seismic surveys and those in shallower waters:
"... Seismic airguns can penetrate several thousand meters beneath the seafloor. Surveys for other, shallow depth purposes typically do not use airguns. While surveys may have some impacts to marine life, airgun seismic surveys have the potential for greater impacts."

Another key point has to do with the potential for exploration technology to develop along more precise and less risky lines. In that case, information gathered now through seismic airgun testing would be outdated by the time the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf is under consideration for oil and gas leasing again.

The prospects for that never happening look good, given the opposition to seismic testing by both environmental and business stakeholders in Atlantic Coast states.

On the other hand, President-elect Donald Trump's choice of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State offers a glimmer of hope to oil and gas stakeholders, so stay tuned.

Image via U.S. BOEM







Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey