Unlikely bedfellows rally to oppose seismic air gun testing, offshore drilling near the North Carolina coast

By: - July 5, 2017 5:00 am

“Organized people win over organized money if they’re on the right side,” said Henry Croom of Citizens Protecting the Atlantic Coast. “We’re on the right side.” (Photo Lisa Sorg)

The Atlantic Ocean has never been a silent place, what with the whales and their jabbering, the dolphins and their mating calls. The underwater sound waves of earthquakes, volcanoes and waves are background noise, akin to the hum of air conditioners in the summertime.

But over time, the noise beneath the sea grew louder, at times, even deafening. First, the ships. And over the centuries, trans-Atlantic cable, Navy sonar, submarines, even bombs.

And now, the air guns. The National Marine Fisheries Service is considering allowing energy companies to fire seismic air guns up and down the Atlantic Coast in search of oil and gas.

Seismic air guns use compressed air to generate pulses of sound — excruciatingly loud sound, 250 decibels — every 10 to 15 seconds for months at a time. For whales, dolphins and sea turtles, who communicate by sound, this noisy environment is akin to people trying to converse — say, hold a business meeting, read to their children, call the fire department — over the roar of a jet engine 100 feet away.

Under the Trump administration, the National Marine Fisheries Service could issue as many as five “Incidental Harassment Authorization” permits to allow oil and gas companies to use the tests to survey the ocean floor for potential drilling sites. The area runs roughly from Delaware down the coast to Florida, including North Carolina.

The ramifications for marine life are dire. “Many ocean animals, particularly marine mammals such as whales, rely for their very existence on their ability to use sound,” testified Duke University scientist and professor Douglas Nowacek before a U.S. House subcommittee. “For these animals, sound is central to their ability to find food, to locate other animals, to avoid predators, to reproduce, and thus to survive.”

Seismic testing is only the first step in a process that could forever alter the environment of the North Carolina coast. Under the Obama administration, offshore drilling could occur no closer than 50 miles from the Atlantic Coast. But under President Trump, that distance has been reduced to just three miles. Oil rigs would be well within view of the Carolina beaches and fisheries, drawing any environmental and economic damage even closer to the coast.

These threats have united people who often disagree: Republicans, Democrats, environmental advocates, fishers and business representatives — including the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast — all of whom want to protect the state’s $1 billion coastal health and economy.

“We stand against seismic blasting and offshore drilling,” Tom Kies, president of the Carteret County Chamber of Commerce, which represents 900 businesses, told the group, Citizens Protecting the Atlantic Coast, last week in Morehead City. “We all want to protect the Atlantic Coast.”

Initially, scientists were concerned about the well-being of marine mammals and sea turtles. But scientists have learned that seismic air gun testing harms living beings further down the food chain. Fish, even zooplankton — tiny organisms that marine life feeds on — can be harmed by the noise.

Any threat to marine life also threatens North Carolina’s $157 million seafood industry. It could livelihoods of people like Mark Hooper, a commercial fisherman of  softshell crabs, and his wife, Penny, who were asking people in Morehead City to file public comment against the practice.

“If it’s killing the krill and the phytoplankton, what is it doing to the fisheries?” said Larry Baldwin, the Crystal Coast Waterkeeper. “This isn’t just about the Outer Banks and the Coast.”

Members of Congress are also submitting comment against the tests. On June 28, dozens of US House members, including Republican Walter Jones Jr., who represents areas of coastal North Carolina, and Democrat David Price of Chapel Hill, sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, vehemently opposing the seismic air gun surveys.

The letter cited a 2014 study conducted off North Carolina’s coast by the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Duke University and NOAA. The research found that, during seismic surveying, the number of reef-fish declined by 78 percent in the evening, a time of day when fish use of that same habitat was highest on the previous three days when seismic surveys were not being conducted.

Even worse, because of the way sound travels through water, the blasts of seismic air guns can be heard greater than 2,500 miles from the source, according to Nowacek, the Duke University scientist. That distance is equivalent to two-thirds of the way across the Atlantic Ocean.

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“Opening the Atlantic to seismic testing and drilling jeopardizes our coastal businesses, fishing communities, tourism and our national security,” the letter said. “It harms our coastal economies in the near term and opens the door to even greater risks from offshore oil and gas production down the road. Therefore, we implore you not to issue any permits for seismic airgun surveys for subsea oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic Ocean.”

Over scientific objections, both the Trump administration and the American Petroleum Institute, a national trade association representing the oil and gas industry, insist that seismic testing is safe and necessary for “national energy security.”

But the United States’ reliance on petroleum imports has declined since 2005, according to the US Energy Information Administration. A decrease in consumption, an increase in biofuels and existing production in the Gulf, for example, have contributed to the decline. The US already produces 75 percent of the petroleum it uses; it imports the remainder, primarily from Canada.

API justifies the tests as a way to secure the estimated 4.7 billion barrels of oil and 37.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lying beneath the Outer Continental Shelf. But it’s uncertain if those numbers are accurate estimates or fantasy. Either way, the public — including Congress and local governments — doesn’t have the right to know. By law, according to the congressional letter, data obtained from seismic surveys “are proprietary and only available to the oil and gas industry. Our constituents would be left taking on significant risk without being involved in future development decisions.”

About 30 people gathered in Morehead City last week to sign petitions against seismic air gun testing in the Atlantic Ocean — a precursor to offshore drilling. The comment period ends Thursday, July 6. (Photo Lisa Sorg)


North Carolina has been targeted for oil and gas drilling before, but the state has managed to prevail over those interests. In 1988, Mobil successfully bid $103 million for the rights to a nine-square-mile leasing block of an area off the Outer Banks, known as the Manteo Unit or The Point. At the time, Mobil believed the reef contained 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The company proposed drilling an exploratory well but North Carolina, in its review of the company’s required exploration plan, deemed it inconsistent with the state’s coastal protection laws. Mobil appealed the state’s decision to the U.S. Department of Commerce, but lost.

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In 1995, Chevron began looking at an area within the Manteo Unit for drilling and Morehead City for its onshore operations. The state, under Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, approved Chevron’s proposal. But President Bill Clinton foiled Chevron’s plans when he issued an executive order removing from consideration all unleased areas of the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf until 2012.

Gov. Beverly Perdue opposed drilling in part, because the state would receive no royalties from oil and gas production. (She favored off-shore wind, and joined North Carolina in the Atlantic Wind Energy Consortium.) “Simply put, no state can or should make decisions that could forever alter the state of its coast and economy without a firm commitment as to its share of the revenue,” Perdue wrote to the federal government in 2009.

In 2014, Gov. Pat McCrory advocated for offshore energy exploration in North Carolina; so far, Gov. Roy Cooper hasn’t taken a definitive stance.

If oil and gas production is permitted off the North Carolina coast, said Baldwin, the Crystal Coast Waterkeeper,  the rigs would be visible not only in the daytime, but at night. “You could sit on your beach chair on in Emerald Island and see the glow of the gas being burned off.”

“We’re headed for a lawsuit,” Baldwin went on. “The comment period sets the stage.”

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.