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
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
"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,