That’s about where the accord ends.
Though drilling cannot begin off the Mid-Atlantic or southeast coasts until at least 2017, conservationists and some members of Congress are demanding that the Interior Department and its new secretary, Sally Jewell, block the use of the technology, contending that the practice is harmful to ocean mammals.
“I think it’s fair to say that to a marine mammal, it must be like being in a war zone,” said Michael Jasny, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s marine mammal project, which was part of a recently settled lawsuit over use of the air guns in the Gulf of Mexico. “Every 10 to 12 seconds, boom! . . . And then you combine that with [noise from shipping and other activity] — it’s just unimaginable.”
Oil and geophysical companies say this is an ill-disguised attempt to prevent all drilling in the huge area President Obama opened to exploration in 2010, and other members of Congress have demanded that exploration proceed.
Chip Gill, president of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, said there has been no evidence of air guns harming marine mammals in the nearly four decades since they replaced dynamite as the preferred method of mapping mineral deposits below the seabed in sites around the world. Companies go to extraordinary lengths to protect marine life, and they must map the earth below the ocean floor not only to determine what it holds but also to ensure that oil rigs can be safely erected, he said.
“Isn’t it in the best interests of the American people to at least go image the subsurface so our resource managers, the federal government, have the best information on which to make these decisions?” Gill asked. “I would submit yes.”
Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management was originally scheduled to rule on the use of air guns last fall, but that deadline has slipped to next March, spokesman John Filostrat said.
In the meantime, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is updating its standards for the level of noise that is harmful to sea life, something it hasn’t done since 1998, said Amy Scholik-Schlomer, a biologist for NOAA Fisheries. That effort should be completed by the end of this year or the beginning of 2014, in time to figure into BOEM’s decision, she said.
In 2010, Obama opened 330,000 square miles of ocean, from Delaware Bay to Cape Canaveral, to oil and gas exploration, which can’t begin until at least 2017 because no leases are currently planned. BOEM believes there are 3.3 billion barrels of oil and 31.3 trillion cubic feet of gas off the East Coast, but that is based on surveys conducted in the early 1980s, when technology wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now.