Whales and Dolphins in Danger as Obama Administration Approves Offshore Oil Exploration

Environmentalists say plans to use sonic cannons to survey petroleum deposits will disrupt marine life.

(Photo: Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty)

Jul 21, 2014· 1 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

When it comes to protecting the oceans and marine life, it seems that the Obama administration gives with one hand and takes with the other.

On Friday, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved the use of sonic cannons for oil and gas exploration off the East Coast from Delaware to Florida, lifting a 30-year-old ban. Boats will tow sonic cannons that direct sound pulses—100 times more deafening than jet engines—about every 10 seconds beneath the ocean floor. Hydrophones will record the reverberations, which will be used to create maps of potential petroleum oil and natural gas depositions.

That will harm whales, dolphins, and other marine animals, according to environmentalists. For instance, the sound blasts will disrupt migration, foraging, mating, and other behavior of the endangered right whale, they say. The dynamite-like explosions can also kill fish eggs and larvae.

"This announcement is just the latest decision in a series of ocean pandering disguised as planning," Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said in an email. "Right whales are only the tip of the ever so rapidly melting iceberg."

Sonic testing could begin early next year and lead to offshore drilling in the 2020s. Nine companies so far have expressed interest in conducting the surveys.

It is little consolation to critics that the government will prohibit sonic surveys whenever certain species are present. The administration will also ban sonic cannons in right whale migration routes and the conducting of multiple seismic tests.

The American Petroleum Institute called the restrictions "arbitrary and unnecessary."

"Operators already take great care to protect wildlife, and the best science and decades of experience prove that there is no danger to marine mammal populations,'' said the institute's upstream director, Erik Milito.

On a conference call, Walter Cruikshank, acting director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said, "We are taking every step we think is reasonable to try and put those protections in place while still allowing surveys to occur."

The decision is in marked contrast to other efforts by the Obama administration to protect whales and dolphins. The U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, earlier this year decried the annual dolphin slaughter in the cove at Taiji.

Last month, President Obama proposed enlarging the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument from almost 87,000 square miles to nearly 782,000 square miles, making it the world's largest protected marine sanctuary. Under the plan, fishing, energy exploration, and other activities would be banned inside the expanded area.

"I'm going to use my authority as president to protect some of our most precious marine landscapes, just like we do for mountains and rivers and forests," Obama said at the time.

The lifting of the ban on oil exploration off the East Coast comes on the heels of a federally funded climate study off the New Jersey Shore that will use sonic blasts to map seabed sediments.

"Whales are highly migratory species impacted by multiple threats, and the cumulative impacts just keep mounting," said Asmutis-Silvia.