Seismic Testing (Blasting) and Offshore Drilling
"It seems increasingly clear that the evidence of the potential harm of seismic testing is stronger than the evidence of Atlantic drilling having any meaningful effect on our energy consumption or independence. It seems much more a matter of greed than need.”
Source: St. Augustine Record, May 4, 2014 (Reprinted by Oceana)
In the last couple of centuries, the world has become increasingly dependent on fossil fuels - primarily coal, oil, and natural gas - for its sources of energy. These fossil fuels were formed over millions of years from the remains of dead animals and plants that were buried under vast amounts of rock, dirt, and mud. Heat from inside the earth and the pressure from the rocks and dirt converted these remains into the fossil fuels. Coal (primarily used to provide electricity) is usually accessed from surface or deep mines, oil (primarily used in transportation) is typically accessed through holes driven deep below the earth and pumped to the surface for extraction by oil rigs, and natural gas (primarily used to provide heat or electricity) deposits are typically pumped from deep below the ground (Environmental and Energy Study Group, 2017).
Most fossil fuels can be accessed from land, but there are also fossil fuels lying beneath the seabed in oceans. Offshore drilling is a mechanical process in which a well is drilled below the seabed. It is typically carried out in order to explore for and subsequently extract oil which lies in rock formations beneath the seabed. Most commonly, the term is used to describe drilling activities on the continental shelf, though the term can also be applied to drilling in lakes, inshore waters and inland seas.
To access this oil, gigantic oil rigs are constructed. They are in a sense miniature, floating cities that can employ and house hundreds of workers. Other massive production facilities sit atop undersea towers that descend as far as 4,000 feet into the depths -- taller than the world's largest skyscrapers.
In order to determine where to drill, a process called seismic testing (or seismic blasting) is typically used. This involves sending shock waves down through the water and into the ocean floor. Sound travels at different speeds through different types of rock. If the shock wave reaches a change in rock layers, it bounces back up toward hydrophones dragged behind the survey ship. With the aid of computers, seismologists can then analyze the information to pinpoint possible traps in the Earth.
Survey ships use both compressed air guns and explosives to emit shock waves (Lamb, 2008).
Seismic airguns (the more common approach) shoot blasts of compressed air into the ocean floor each of which is an estimated 100,000 times more intense than the sound of a jet engine. If approved, vessels would tow as many as 30 air guns, which would be fired every 10 seconds continuously 24 hours a day - seven days a week for the duration of the mapping exercise, which could last for several weeks (Soper, 2017).
Perspectives: Pros and Cons
Supporters of seismic testing and offshore drilling state that it has four primary benefits:
1. The additional oil discovered and processed from offshore wells would eventually lead to a substantial reduction in dependence on foreign oil. This enhanced "energy security" could prevent the United States from ever being dependent on countries with whom we have a poor relationship and from those countries being able to extort high energy prices from the U.S.
2. Having greater control over our own oil supplies should enable American oil companies to keep the price of oil down (meaning lower gas costs).
3. The processes of testing for oil deposits, constructing the necessary infrastructure, drilling, and transporting the oil would create a large number of jobs and lead to substantial revenues for eastern seaboard states.
4. New technologies make seismic testing safer for marine life and less likely to result in a catastrophic accident such as a rig fire or major oil spill. Many politicians now cite this as a factor in their support for offshore drilling (although scientific groups almost unanimously disagree).
Critics of seismic testing (blasting) and offshore drilling point to eight primary problems:
1. The relatively small amount of oil in the Atlantic would have a minimal global impact and a minimal effect on domestic supply. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that the current off-limits portion of the shelf in the lower 48 states combined likely holds only about 18 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil. Because the United States consumes about 7.5 billion barrels of oil each year, the untapped sea floor could conceivably supply the country's energy needs for only a little more than two years. The Department of Interior estimates that all of the oil in the Atlantic would last for only five months and would not likely affect the global market. Many analysts recommend that we work towards energy independence through regulation (for example, increasing efficiency standards of automobiles and working to develop clean, sustainable energy sources such as solar, wind, water, and geothermal).
In addition, the United States already produces more oil than it consumes. As of October, 2017, oil exports from the United States were at an all-time high of 1.98 million barrels of oil per day. At that level, the United States is shipping out more oil than what some OPEC countries like Venezuela and Nigeria are producing. That is not long-term energy security and reliance on nonrenewable energy sources never will be. It will, however, be an absolute financial bonanza for the oil and gas industries. The proposed offshore drilling is not intended to satisfy our needs or to build a reserve for our country. It is intended to create more exportable product to reap stunning levels of profit for the oil and gas industries.
2. Given the relatively small amount of oil that can be harvested, there is likely to be minimal or no effect on gasoline prices.
3. The supposed boost in number of jobs to area economies is based on faulty reasoning. First, seismic blasting and offshore drilling would increase jobs, but most of these jobs require specific skills that are uncommon among Brunswick County residents and are jobs that will not provide long-term employment. It is not uncommon for workers on oil rigs to come in for two weeks staying on the rig and then return to their home state for two weeks. Moreover, the number of new jobs that would be created must be considered next to the number of jobs that could easily be lost due to a damaged tourism industry caused by polluted beaches that look out on unsightly drill platforms and by reduced fish stocks.
Developing clean, renewable energy sources including solar, wind, water, and geothermal will also increase jobs, and a greater percentage would go to Brunswick County residents and provide long-term employment. They can much more easily be incorporated into a tourist-based economy.
4. Continuing to use (and rely on) fossil fuels will continue to stimulate and accelerate climate change. Research in a multitude of scientific disciplines has clearly demonstrated this relationship. Fossil fuels contribute 65% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, continued growth of the fossil fuel industry diverts funding from innovation in next-generation energy platforms that will move us to a genuine level of sustainability. Climate change has potentially disastrous consequences for life on earth, and these become more likely the longer we postpone movement away from dependence on fossil fuels.
5. Offshore drilling is unsafe for workers. The very process of offshore drilling – an extraction of volatile substances sometimes under extreme pressure in a hostile environment—means risk. Accidents and tragedies occur regularly. Between 2001 and 2010, there were 69 deaths, 1,349 injuries, and 858 fires and explosions on offshore rigs just in the Gulf of Mexico. Between 2011 and 2014, offshore drilling led to an additional 11 deaths, 1,063 injuries, and 477 fires and explosions. (Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, 2017). In 2017, the Trump administration eliminated many safety regulations because they were "burdensome" to the oil and gas industry. This will lead to decreased worker safety.
6. Offshore drilling involves many types of environmental risks including oil leaks from the platforms and oil spills from pipelines and ships. Oil wastes that enter the ocean come from many sources, some being accidental spills or leaks, and some being the results of chronic and careless habits in the use of oil and oil products. It is estimated that approximately 706 million gallons of waste oil enter the ocean every year, with about 56 million gallons related to offshore drilling.
When oil is spilled in the ocean, it initially spreads on the surface of the water. The oil slick may remain cohesive or break up into patches. Gradually, it descends. Marine habitats in the path are typically destroyed. If oil waste reaches the shoreline or coast, it interacts with sediments such as beach sand and gravel, rocks and boulders, vegetation, and terrestrial habitats of both wildlife and humans, causing erosion as well as contamination. Oil spills present the potential for enormous harm to deep ocean and coastal fishing and fisheries. The immediate effects of toxic and smothering oil waste may be mass mortality and contamination of fish and other food species, but long-term ecological effects may be worse. Oil waste poisons the sensitive marine and coastal organic substrate, interrupting the food chain on which fish and sea creatures depend, and on which their reproductive success is based. Commercial fishing enterprises may be affected permanently.
7. Seismic testing/blasting is extremely harmful to marine life. The noise from the airguns can be heard up to 2,500 miles from the source. While the Bureau of Energy Management describes this as “state-of-the-art computer mapping systems,” it is the same technique used as early as the 1920s augmented by computer analysis. Research has shown that it is extremely dangerous – and often fatal – to marine life. Even the government itself estimates seismic blasting in the Atlantic could injure or kill as many as 138,000 marine mammals like whales and dolphins and cause fish, whales, invertebrates, and sea turtles to change behaviors necessary for survival.
Listen to the sound of an airgun from several thousand miles away - imagine if the sound was close by!
The blasts from seismic air guns can reach volumes of 260 decibels (anything above 180 decibels is believed to be harmful to marine mammals). The injuries that may be caused by sounds at this level include permanent hearing loss, disorientation, brain hemorrhaging and death.The ocean is an acoustic environment, not a visual one, and marine mammals rely heavily on sound for their survival. Without their heightened sense of hearing, marine mammals cannot find food, avoid predators or communicate with each other. An alliance representing over 41,000 businesses, 500,000 fishing families, and more than 140 East Coast municipalities have publicly opposed seismic testing and offshore drilling in the mid-Atlantic.
8. Coastal communities and their economies will be harmed - perhaps irreparably so. Many of our coastal areas are heavily populated and have many recreational activities and related facilities that have been developed for fishing, boating, snorkeling and scuba diving, swimming, nature parks and preserves, beaches, and other resident and tourist attractions. Oil waste that invades and pollutes these areas negatively affects available human activities, causes regional business activity to decline, and makes future investment risky. Property values decrease leading to a lower tax base and necessary increases in taxes – now even more of a problem as drilling will now be permitted as close as three miles offshore. Even without a major spill, the industrialization and infrastructure associated with drilling—the rigs, refineries, pipelines, traffic, and routine spills and accidents—have been found to irreparably harm coastal communities and their economies, discourage migration to the area, and significantly harm the tourism industry and the taxes paid by these activities.
Seismic Testing (Blasting) and Offshore Drilling in Brunswick County
Brunswick County beaches are among the most beautiful beaches in the world, are a critical part of North Carolina’s economy through tourism, and are among the most productive fishing areas in the country. The North Carolina coast attracts millions of tourists, anglers, and other visitors each year.
In early 2015, the federal government announced it was considering opening up the Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia coasts to offshore oil and gas drilling, a significant shift in federal policy. The possibility of drilling off the coast galvanized locals who knew the dangers it posed to the area’s economy and environment. Altogether, more than 100 communities up and down the coast passed resolutions opposing offshore drilling and the harmful seismic testing that precedes it.
In response to this incredible opposition from coastal communities, in 2016, the federal government removed the Atlantic from its offshore leasing plan, protecting all that is special about the Southeast coast (Southern Environmental Law Center, 2017).
However, in 2017 President Trump signed an executive order that intends to expand offshore drilling for oil and gas and halts the naming or expanding of any national marine sanctuaries. "Renewed offshore energy production will reduce the cost of energy, create countless new jobs, and make America more secure and far more energy independent," Trump said. He stated that previous restrictions on exploration and production deprived the U.S. of ‘potentially thousands and thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in wealth’" (Southern Environmental Law Center, 2017)..
The move was enthusiastically welcomed by the oil and gas industry but greeted with alarm by environmental groups. “Opening the Atlantic to offshore oil and gas drilling poses a direct threat to the fragile and unique ecosystems of the southeast coast and to the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on our clean coastal resources,” stated the Southern Environmental Law Center, representing dozens of environmental groups” (Henry, 2017).
The environmental group Oceana described expanding offshore drilling as a "huge, bad stupid mistake." The mayor of Kure Beach, N.C. noted that tourism is the second largest industry in the state. "We don't want the devastation from an oil spill," she said. "It's not whether it would happen, but when it would happen.” (It remains unclear if the executive order is legal due to specific wording that was included in the Obama measure.) (Rott and Kennedy, 2017).
In July, 2017 North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper announced his administration was opposed to offshore oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic waters adjacent to the North Carolina coast. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) applauded the Governor. David Kelly, Manager of North Carolina Political Affairs for EDF stated:
The livelihoods, values, and regional traditions of our state’s coastal communities are intimately linked to the health of the coastal environment and its abundant natural resources. The Atlantic waters along North Carolina’s coast and the complex estuarine systems of the Outer Banks support globally important marine life and biodiversity, and should be protected from the risks associated with offshore oil and gas drilling and the intensive industrialization of the coast that comes with it. With his announcement today, Governor Cooper renews our state’s enduring commitment to the preservation of the beaches, wetlands, estuaries, fish habitats, marine mammals and other aquatic species that support our state’s small businesses and robust coastal fishing and tourism economy (Environmental Defense Fund, 2017).
Trump's decision also drew immediate opposition from governors of both parties along the East and West Coasts. Expressing opposition to the plan were Republican governors Rick Scott of Florida, Larry Hogan of Maryland, outgoing New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, and Henry McMaster of South Carolina and Democratic governors Roy Cooper of North Carolina, Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, John Carney of Delaware, Andrew Cuomo of New York, incoming New Jersey governor Phil Murphy, and Daniel Malloy of Connecticut . The only East Coast governor who expressed support for offshore drilling was Maine Governor Paul LePage, but Maine’s two senators and two House members all stated their opposition. All three West Coast governors also made vehement statements in opposition.
What East Coast Communities Oppose
Seismic Testing And/Or Offshore Drilling?
What Do East Coast Governors and Senators Think About Offshore Drilling?
But.........No Brunswick County!
What Do You Say to People Who Have An Emotional
Attachment to Seismic Blasting and Offshore Drilling?
As BEAT and other environmental groups continue to offer opposition to seismic blasting and offshore drilling based on science and logic, opponents continue to rely on incorrect information, appeals to partisan politics, and name-calling. An exaggeration? You would know it is not if you have attended recent BCC meetings.
In order to combat the arguments made by those who support blasting and drilling, a thoroughly documented paper has been prepared with responses to each of their main points. Learn more about blasting and drilling and learn how to respond to their arguments with fact-based information!
This paper is available in the Key Environmental Issues section of this website and by clicking here:
What Can Be Done?
The starting points for doing something about the potential harms created by seismic testing (blasting) and offshore drilling on the Atlantic coast is the same as with all of the environmental issues covered in this section of the website:
Become more knowledgeable about this issue.
Discuss this issue with others; learn from them and help them learn from you.
Join forces with groups and organizations that are knowledgeable about environmental issues in general (BEAT!) and about this issue in particular. Organizations have greater access to scientific expertise, have larger budgets, have more contacts with the media, and have the force of combining many voices into one.
Oppose efforts to impose seismic testing (blasting) and offshore drilling on the Atlantic coast. Urge elected officials in North Carolina and in Brunswick County (as a start) to formally express their opposition to offshore drilling (as many already have). The governor and the state legislature are the key agents in determining whether seismic testing (blasting) and offshore drilling will be allowed to harm our communities and our coast or whether cleaner and safer energy sources will be used.
Advocate for cheaper, cleaner, and safer energy sources. Solar and wind power, for example, provide limitless sources of clean and safe energy and at a lower cost. These are the technologies of the present in more and more countries and likely the sources of energy in all countries in the future.
Examine the values and political position on this issue of candidates running for political office. Federal support for a strong Environmental Protection Agency is very important. Support for a meaningful Department of Environmental Quality in North Carolina is very important. Support by North Carolina’s governor and state legislature for taking a scientific approach to seismic testing and offshore drilling is absolutely critical. Look for candidates that emphasize the importance of environmental impact in making decisions about what to do or not do.
Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. 2017 “Offshore Incident Statistics.” www.bsee.gov/Inspection-and-Enforcement/Accidents-and-Incidents/listing-and-Status-of-Accident-Investigations
Carolyn Embach. 2017 “Oil Spills: Impact on the Ocean.” www.waterencyclopedia.com/Oc-Po/Oil-Spills-Impact-on-the-Ocean.html
Environmental Defense Fund. 2017 “Governor Cooper Moves to Protect Coastal Communities, Announces Opposition to Offshore Drilling.” www.edf.org/media/governor-cooper-moves-protect-coastal-communities-announces-opposition-offshore-drilling
Environmental and Energy Study Institute. 2017 “Fossil Fuels.” www.eesi.org/topics/fossil-fuels/description
Devin Henry. 2017 “Lawmakers Push Interior to Expand Offshore Drilling.” www.thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/346849-lawmakers-push-interior-to-expand-offshore-drilling
Robert Lamb. 2008 “How Offshore Drilling Works.” www.science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/energy/offshore-drilling.htm
Nathan Rott and Merrit Kennedy. 2017 “Trump Signs Executive Order on Offshore Drilling and Marine Sanctuaries.” www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/04/27/525959808/trump-to-sign-executive-order-on-offshore-drilling-and-marine-sanctuaries
St. Augustine Record. May 14, 2014 “Seismic Testing: Lots of Pain, Little Gain.” www.usa.oceana.org/sites/default/files/5.4.14.st_augustine_record._seismic_testing_lots_of_pain_little_gain_0.pdf
Soper, Shawn. 2017 “Attorney Generals Join Seismic Testing Opposition.” www.mdcoastdispatch.com/2017/07/27/state-attorney-generals-join-seismic-testing-opposition
Southern Environmental Law Center. 2017 “Protecting Our Southern Coast.” www.southernenvironment.org/cases-and-projects/offshore-oil-drilling
Read and See More on Seismic Testing (Blasting) and Offshore Drilling
Karen Brown. 2018 "Don't Risk Drilling Off Our Coast." Greensboro News and Record, February 4.
A compelling statement of opposition to offshore drilling by Karen Brown, President and CEO of the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce.
Robert Lamb. 2017 "How Offshore Oil Drilling Works." http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/energy/offshore-drilling9.htm (go to directly; does not load)
An introduction to the process of offshore drilling.
The Hill. 2017 “Trump Proposes Seismic Tests for Atlantic Ocean Drilling.”
President Trump’s decision to overturn President Obama’s decision not to drill in the Atlantic Ocean.
Neel Keller. 2018 "Coastal Advocates Vow to Fight Drilling Plan." Coastal Review Online, January 11.
Opposition to offshore drilling with focus on Dare County.
National Geographic. 2014 “Atlantic Seismic Tests for Oil: Marine Animals at Risk?”
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Marine life that will be harmed by seismic testing and offshore drilling and how supposed safeguards are insufficient.
(Sample Scholarly article) Avery B. Julian Dale, Elijah Cole, Paxton, J. Christopher Taylor, Douglas P. Nowachek, Elijah Cole, Christine M. Voss, and Charles H. Peterson. 2017 "Seismic Survey Noise Disrupted Fish Use of a Temperate Reef." Marine Policy 78:68-73.
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Research finds seismic testing disrupts fish use of offshore habitat
(Video) BlueGold Seminar. “The Dangers of Offshore Drilling.”
The consequences of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.
(Video) North Carolina Policy Watch. "Blakely Hildebrand with the Southern Environmental Law Center Discusses the Dangers of Seismic Testing off the North Carolina Coast."
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Focuses specifically on seismic testing off the North Carolina coast.
Sample of Scholarly Journals:
Environmental Economics and Policy
Journal of Energy Resources Technology Online
Public Understanding of Science