New Energy Probe May Harm Sea Life ; US Quest to Find Offshore Oil and Gas Reserves Raises Concerns about 'Blasting' Marine Animals

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Faced with its biggest energy challenge in more than 20 years, the United States is poised to look for offshore reserves of oil and natural gas as never before.

By using the latest techniques, government officials hope to update surveys more than two decades old and, perhaps, discover new pools of oil and gas hidden miles under the ocean floor. Such discoveries could boost US production and lessen reliance on foreign oil.

But not everyone is pleased. Many legislators fear that such surveys will boost political pressure to begin offshore drilling in areas where it has been banned for decades. Even without drilling, the new survey - which involves blasting the ocean floor with sound waves - could threaten marine life, environmentalists say.

"There is an increasing body of evidence indicating that the intense blasts of sounds from seismic air guns can injure, kill, and otherwise harm marine mammals and fish," says Michael Jasny, senior policy consultant to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The prospect of drilling off the coasts of tourist havens, such as California and Florida, has stirred the most vocal opposition to the new survey, contained in the energy legislation passed last week. "The inventory itself would constitute a slippery slope toward further drilling that is both unnecessary and unwarranted," US Rep. Katherine Harris (R) of Florida said in a statement. She voted against the bill with 21 of Florida's 25 congressional representatives and both US senators last week.

While most opposition centers around the potential ramifications of the survey, environmentalists are sounding an alarm over the seismic survey itself. A typical seismic air gun array pulled by a ship might fire its compressed air bubbles into the ocean five or six times a minute - more than 7,000 shots in 24 hours. Some researchers worry such testing would pummel sea creatures with a barrage of sound pulses 200 decibels and higher - equivalent on land to listening to an artillery gun being fired 500 feet away.

Studies have documented the impact of seismic exploration on fish catches off Norway, which diminished in the 1990s. Some scientists think surveys were connected to dead giant squid floating onto Spanish beaches in 2003 and whales beaching themselves in the Sea of Cortez in 2002. But little is known about the long-term impact of such testing, especially on larger animals like whales, scientists say.

"I would say not only is the jury out, it's not even impounded yet," says Arthur Popper, a University of Maryland biologist.

But a 2004 study by the Minerals Management Service (MMS) of the US Interior Department found "no significant impact" on marine life from geological and geophysical exploration. A National Research Council also noted that "no scientific studies have conclusively demonstrated a link" between the two.

But that finding doesn't satisfy Jonathan Stern, a marine biologist who advises the American Cetacean Society of San Pedro, Calif. …