Apr 26

Weigh In On Proposed Seismic Testing

ENC Residents Weigh In On Proposed Seismic Testing

Eastern North Carolina Public Radio
Seismic survey vessel towing an air source array and acoustic receivers called hydrophones.
Seismic survey vessel towing an air source array and acoustic receivers called hydrophones.
Credit International Association of Geophysical Contractors

This week, Governor Pat McCrory expressed before Congress his support for environmentally safe and responsible offshore energy exploration.  He testified on President Obama’s Offshore Energy Plan that would open areas off the North Carolina coast to oil and gas drilling by the year 2022.  Before development can take place, seismic surveys will determine tracts of land that are conducive for offshore drilling.  Deputy Director for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Walter Cruickshank says the surveys will update information that’s four decades old.

“There were seismic surveys that were taken back in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. That was using older technology that couldn’t see as far underneath the seabed as current technology.”

The technique used today employs seismic air cannons that shoot a pulse of air into the water in search of oil and gas deposits deep in the ocean floor.  Cruickshank explains the technique.

“Those are conducted by using compressed air guns if you will that are towed behind ships.  These are cylinders filled with compressed air and when that air is released, they create a sound wave.  And the sound wave will penetrate the seabed and reflect off the layers of rock beneath the seabed. The seismic vessels are towing hydrophones that will listen for those reflected sound waves and use the data from those sound waves to map the subsurface

Seismic testing is drawing criticism from environmentalists and conservationist concerned the blasts,  comparable to the volume of exploding dynamite and occurring every 10 to 15 seconds, can negatively impact wildlife.  While little information is known on how seismic surveys affect fish species, Associate Professor at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort Douglas Nowacek maintains that marine mammals are affected.

“We do know from several studies that what we see in some of the toothed whales, some of the eco-locaters, so the sperm whales, the pilot whales, sperm whales for sure from some experiments in the Gulf of Mexico, they reduce their feeding rate when exposed to seismic surveys.”

Nowachek was among more than 75 people who attended a public hearing on seismic testing April 9th held by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.  The meeting at the Crystal Coast Civic Center in Morehead City gave residents a chance to voice their concerns or share their support.  Gary Terry is from Ahoskie.

“It’s a very important issue, energy is a very important issue, you know it would be nice if windmills and solar cells would power our world 24/7, but they won’t do it.  Until we find something better, I’m 100 percent in favor of using fossil fuels and developing them using clean coal technology, every source of power we can get to make power cheaper.”

The majority of people who spoke at the hearing were firmly against seismic testing, including Conservation Chair of the Sierra Club Croatan Group Penny Hooper.

“I’m an active environmentalist, I’ve lived in this area for 40 years and my husband is a commercial fisherman and I am very much opposed to anything that would hurt the marine environment from the point of view of how we make our living, and from the point of view of creation care.”

According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the mid and south Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf region holds more than 4 billion barrels of oil and 37 and a half trillion cubic feet of natural gas.  Gov. Pat McCrory said this week before a subcommittee that he wants two leases early in the cycle to encourage energy-related infrastructure.  In order to accomplish this goal, seismic testing must get underway.  The Department of Environment and Natural Resources has received consistency review submissions from four companies who want to conduct those seismic surveys off our coast.  They are Spectrum Geo Inc., GX Technology, CGG Services and TGS, all Texas based businesses.

There are over 200 companies in the United States that conduct geological and geophysical activities.  Many of them belong to the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, including the four companies that want to explore North Carolina’s offshore resources.  Vice President of Government and Legal Affairs with IAGC Nikki Martin.

“The same technology, those 2-D surveys which are being proposed, have occurred in the Atlantic OCS for other uses, such as research; whether they’re carried out by National Science Foundation or USGS, they use the exact same technology but for different purposes.”

Martin says after more than four decades of seismic surveys all over the world, their member companies indicate that the risk of direct physical injury to marine mammals is extremely low.

“And most importantly, there’s no scientific evidence demonstrating biologically significant or negative impacts on marine life populations.  The impact to the population level is what is most important and what we’re focused on.”

While populations may not be affected by seismic surveys, Associate Professor at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort Douglas Nowacek says they have other measurable effects on some species.

“I participated in some studies in the early 2000’s that looked specifically at sperm whales and that’s when we found that reduction in foraging rate, it was a short term response.  But what we are getting better at is taking those short responses that we can measure really well and extrapolating those out to what it means to the population.”

It’s not known how pilot whales, beaked whales, and large fish species respond to seismic testing.  Nowacek is worried about a particular area located 45 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras known as the “Manteo Prospect.”  He says the 30 mile long and 3 to 5 miles wide reef structure is likely the highest biodiversity spot in the western North Atlantic.

“We work out there quite a lot, we might see ten different species of whales and dolphins, we might see six to eight species of large fish from mahi mahi to wahoo to tuna, several different species of tuna, sharks turtles, rays.  So it’s a serious hotspot.”

The area was observed in 1999 as a potential site for offshore oil resources. Now, some 15 years later, Nowacek says there’s been renewed interest in the area, with all of the current permit applications for seismic testing overlaping in this sensitive area.

“How much noise would you withstand before you actually got up and moved? You’d probably do something about it before then, but the point is that’s your home and I think we need to talk about what we know and what we don’t know about those species.”

According to Vice President of Government and Legal Affairs with IAGC Nikki Martin, the seismic surveying industry employs a number of mitigation measures to lessen any potential risks to marine life, including breeding and foraging areas.  That includes endangered North Atlantic Right Whale Critical Habitat.

“There’s also what’s called seasonal management area.  And that’s basically a 20 nautical mile area running from the coastline that is off limits to seismic survey from November to April.  And beyond that, there’s also what’s called Dynamic Management Areas.  If a group of North Atlantic right whales or even one North Atlantic right whale is spotted, NOAA Fisheries has the discretion to call survey activity out of that area.”

Even with these mitigation measures in place, many residents in eastern North Carolina aren’t comfortable with the idea of seismic surveys.  But for Beaufort resident Joe Canosa, it’s what could come as a result of the surveys that he finds objectionable.

“I don’t want to see oil spills, which are inevitable.  I’m an offshore fisherman and I don’t really want to have that going on out there.”

Conservation Chair of the Sierra Club Croatan Group Penny Hooper agrees.

“We really should just leave oil in the ground. And not remove any of the carbon that’s already stored so nicely underwater whether it be oil or gas, and instead we should focus in this state on alternative energy sources like offshore wind or solar.”

It’s not just individuals who are opposed to tapping into the oil and gas resources off our coast.  More than 20 communities in the Carolina’s have made their stance against offshore drilling, including Emerald Isle which announced their opposition his week.

With both President Barack Obama and Gov. Pat McCrory supporting the exploration of oil and gas resources off the coast of North Carolina, it’s likely a matter of time before we’ll see seismic testing here.  Still, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources is accepting comments from the public on the consistency review submissions for offshore seismic survey activities.  For more information, go to publicradioeast.org.  I’m Jared Brumbaugh.

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