Proposed federal environmental guidelines released Thursday would protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from offshore seismic testing aimed at sizing up oil and gas reserves from Delaware to Florida.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management outlined that measure and other protections intended to shield marine life if the government allows the testing, which could be a first step in the development of an offshore oil industry in Atlantic waters.
The Obama administration delayed the scheduled leasing of offshore tracts in Virginia and other Atlantic states following the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The leasing was to begin in 2011 but was pushed back to 2017.
The seismic testing is intended to apply new technology to areas that haven't been studied in more than three decades, and then with equipment that had limited capabilities to detect energy resources hidden below the ocean floor. The energy industry has said the new, more sophisticated seismic surveys would not only give a better picture of oil and gas deposits, but also eliminate areas that should not be drilled.
While the industry estimates that oil and natural gas development in the Outer Continental Shelf would create hundreds of thousands of jobs over the next couple decades, ocean protection groups contend marine life shouldn't be exposed to a blast zone up 50 miles off the coast. They have pushed for a delay in the environmental guidelines until a key study is completed.
"By failing to consider relevant science, the Obama administration's decision could be a death sentence for many marine mammals," said Jacqueline Savitz, vice president for U.S. Oceans at Oceana.
In a statement, BOEM Director Tommy P. Beaudreau said the department is committed to "balancing the need for understanding offshore energy resources with the protection of the human and marine environment using the best available science as the basis of this environmental review."
The so-called mitigation measures outlined by BOEM also call for visual observers to avoid vessel strikes with whales and other marine life; testing to detect and avoid other marine life, including dolphins; and protections for nesting sea turtles, dolphins and areas where right whales congregate.
The seismic testing uses air guns mounted on ships to blast sound waves off the ocean bottom. The testing records geological formations that would indicate gas and oil deposits. The surveying would likely take a year or more.
Environmental groups have opposed the testing, contending it would be harmful and disruptive to sea life. They cite government estimates that 138,500 marine mammals such as dolphins and whales could be injured. Only 500 North Atlantic right whales are left worldwide. They migrate from the Gulf of Maine to Florida.
"The ocean is a world of sound, not sight," said Matthew Huelsenbeck, a marine biologist with Oceana, which advocates for the protection of the world's oceans. "When you blast their environment, it can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss and can disturb marine animals. Imagine dynamite going off in your backyard."
Huelsenbeck was skeptical of exclusionary zones intended to protect right whales, noting that the whales can't be constrained by the establishment of protective zones.
Oceana, which presented President Barack Obama with a letter signed by more than 100 marine scientists and conservation biologists opposed to the seismic surveys, had proposed that BOEM delay release of the environmental rules until new acoustic guidelines for marine mammals are released by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The energy industry called the BOEM environmental assessment a critical step to "new exploration for oil and natural gas in the Atlantic."
An industry study released ahead of the BOEM announcement said oil and gas development between 2017 and 2035 could create nearly 280,000 jobs.
"To continue America's energy renaissance in the future, we must explore and plan for the future now," said Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute.