By Phoebe Clewley
In the wake of the Trump Administration’s plans to allow offshore drilling activities for gas and oil exploration, there has been mounting concern regarding the environmental impact caused by seismic mapping of the ocean floor. With the threat of several companies seeking permits to conduct seismic mapping along the eastern seaboard using air guns – currently, the most common method used to map the ocean – environmentalists are raising concern over incessant ocean noise, which they believe poses significant dangers for marine life.
Since 1972, harassment of marine mammals has been illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In an effort to bypass this roadblock, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued incidental harassment authorization permits to five companies for purposes of conducting seismic underwater surveys using air guns. The decision drew backlash from environmental groups who rejected the argument that “incidental” harassment is not the same as “intentional” harassment. In addressing these concerns, several environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against a subdivision of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration claiming the air gun blasts violate several federal laws including the Endangered Species Act. In addition to these efforts, governors from 10 different states have expressed opposition to offshore drilling and wish to join in the lawsuit. Beneath the call for the injunction lies a desire to conduct further research
Air guns operate by firing pressurized air into the oceans causing the sound waves to hit, and penetrate, the ocean floors then bouncing back to the surface where they are captured by hydrophones. Firing around every 10 seconds for months at a time, the sound wave patterns from the air guns create a three-dimensional map of the ocean floor and reveal likely gas and oil hot spots. A seismic shot from an air gun is estimated to reach up to 200 underwater decibels, a magnitude even more extreme than the sound of a space shuttle launch. These constant blasts pose severe risks to marine mammals sensitive to noise. This can lead to diving patterns changing and death from decompression sickness. Furthermore, many marine species rely solely on echolocation – a natural occurring sonar – for hunting and communicating with others. The noise from the air gun blasts can mask the natural noises made by these mammals making it harder to locate food and communicate within their pods. A 2017 study found that excessive seismic technology negatively impacts the marine ecosystem by decreasing zooplankton abundance and causing prolonged chronic stress to marine life, ultimately leading to extreme weight loss for larger species.
While the primary companies involved in gas and oil exploration believe that there is no threat to marine life, environmental experts fear that general noise from air guns, navy sonar, and ship traffic are causing fundamental damage to the marine ecosystem. By disrupting the feeding, reproductive, and social behaviors of many marine species, the effects of the increased oceanic noise have ultimately caused a decline in these populations. Historically, the debate over the environmental impact of oceanic noise from the human impact has garnered significant national attention. In a 2008 Supreme Court decision, the Court rejected environmentalists’ arguments that sonar restrictions were necessary to protecting marine life, and instead ruled that the Navy’s needs for sonar in antiwarfare training outweighed any potential environmental concerns. Following an appeals court decision that upheld restrictions to Navy sonar use due to marine life impact, the Supreme Court decision reversed this ruling by declaring the Naval activities as crucial to international security. While the Supreme Court decision narrowly focused on when the Navy can and cannot use sonar, following the decision, environmentalists feared the ruling would set a precedent for future debates over marine impact.
With the threat of extinction to select species of marine life, such as the North Atlantic right whale – of which there are only 400 remaining in the Atlantic – the potential damage by use of seismic technology is increasingly alarming. If the current debate over air gun use for oceanic mapping progresses to the Courts, the question will likely hinge on whether the importance of offshore drilling outweighs the environmental impacts of the blasts. As the current Supreme Court stands, it is unlikely that further environmental research into the seismic impacts will be prioritized. This means that companies will be granted permits to move forward as planned, leaving environmentalists to wonder whether research on environmental impact will become a priority before the ecosystem damage is irreversible.
Student Bio: Phoebe Clewley is a current second-year law student at Suffolk University Law School, where she is a staffer on the Journal of High Technology Law. Prior to law school, Phoebe worked as a Legal and Compliance Associate at Foundation Medicine, a biotechnology firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.