By ALIX HINES
WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — Environmental groups are speaking out against the Trump administration's decision to allow companies to conduct seismic surveys in the Atlantic Ocean as part of the president's America-First Offshore Energy Strategy.
"Seismic surveys use simple properties of sound waves," said Nikki Martin, the president of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors. "They use a compressed air source and release air pulses that reflect off the subsurface of the ocean floor and provide an image with increased delineation over time, as the technology has improved, of what's underneath the subsurface."
Experts like Diane Hoskins, who is a campaign director for Oceana, have said seismic surveys could put marine life, particularly the already critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, at greater risk.
"According to the government's own estimates, marine mammals like dolphins, whales could be harmed hundreds of thousands of times," Hoskins said, citing a 2014 report from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
The proposed seismic survey zone covers an area twice the size of California, stretching from Cape May, New Jersey, to Cape Canaveral, Florida. Oceana notes that the blasts from the seismic surveys can occur repeatedly every 10 to 12 seconds for days or even months at a time.
"According to the government's own estimates, marine mammals like dolphins, whales could be harmed hundreds of thousands of times."
Some animals, like whales and dolphins, whose habitats fall within this zone, rely on sound to communicate and Hoskins said these surveys could impact them.
"All of that process is disrupted and so, it makes it very difficult for these animals to find food and communicate with their mates," Hoskins said.
She added that the surveys are particularly of concern for the North Atlantic Right Whale because in 2017, there were 17 confirmed deaths and no known babies.
"The added stressor of seismic air gun blasting could bring the species to the tip of extinction," Hoskins said.
Five companies (TGS, ION, WesternGeco, CGG and Spectrum) went through a lengthy process, which included a series of environmental reviews and comment periods, to obtain permits to conduct seismic surveys in the Atlantic.
Martin explained that the companies applied for Incidental Harassment Authorizations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. For an IHA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association is responsible for analyzing the proposed activity and determining whether the company applying for the permit will have no more than a negligible impact on marine species.
"In the previous administration, President (Barack) Obama denied these permits due to the known impacts to marine life," Hoskins said. "It's basically a license from the government for the seismic companies to harm and harass marine mammals."
In May 2017, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said in a press release that conducting seismic surveys could provide data on potential offshore oil and gas resources as well as sites for offshore wind structures.
“Allowing this scientific pursuit enables us to safely identify and evaluate resources that belong to the American people," Zinke said. "This will play an important role in the President’s strategy to create jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign energy resources.”
Martin argues that these seismic surveys can provide policymakers with essential information to help them determine whether to pursue further development.
"So, the permits currently pending for consideration from our member companies are to support an understanding of the energy resource potential that would be used to either further explore, or determine areas that are not available for exploration in the Atlantic," Martin said.
Despite concerns from environmental advocates, Martin said IAGC's members have a set of best practices they must follow that are meant to protect marine life.
“Allowing this scientific pursuit enables us to safely identify and evaluate resources that belong to the American people."
For example, she said they will shut down operations if they see a marine mammal entering a certain zone close to the sound source.
"It also can include what's called passive acoustics monitoring, and that involves observers also listening for marine mammals, so even if you don't see them, if you can hear them and understand where they are in proximity to your vessel and your sound source, to avoid interaction with them that may be harmful," Martin added.
Still, environmental groups like Oceana are worried about the affects seismic surveys can have on marine habitats, as well as the fact that they could ultimately lead to offshore drilling.
Editor's note: This story was first drafted in May by Circa multimedia journalist Alix Hines. She now works as a science writer and social media specialist at NOAA.