ST. PETERSBURG — Elected officials and environmentalists in Florida reacted swiftly to the federal government's decision Friday to reopen the Eastern Seaboard to offshore oil exploration using sonic cannons to find deepwater energy reserves.
The approval by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will allow oil companies to troll the continental shelf from Delaware to Florida blasting sound waves 100 times louder than a jet engine into the depths every 10 seconds.
The process can be harmful to whales, dolphins, turtles and other marine life, the bureau acknowledged, but members of Florida's congressional delegation also are concerned about opening the door to offshore oil rigs in a state that depends on clean water for its multibillion-dollar tourism industry.
“I have significant concerns about this decision and this methodology and it simply reinforces my strong opposition to expanded exploration in the eastern gulf, including any future use of this technology in our waters,” U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, said in a statement Friday.
Several elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, have signed a letter to President Barack Obama opposing the agency's decision.
“Expanding unnecessary drilling offshore simply puts too much at risk. Florida has more coastline than any other state in the continental United States and its beaches and marine resources support the local economy across the state,” the letter states.
Energy companies are preparing to apply for drilling leases in 2018, when current congressional limits are set to expire.
A federal moratorium on oil leases along the eastern Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast will remain in effect until 2022, and Tampa Bay area tourism leaders and environmental groups plan to push for it to be extended, said Phil Compton, of the Sierra Club's St. Petersburg field office.
“We know the oil companies have no limits to their desire to extract oil in every location no matter what the cost to the local economy,” he said.
Compton's group has more immediate concerns about seismic cannon blasting injuring or killing thousands of marine mammals according to the federal government's own estimates. Arguing that endangered species could be harmed was the best hope environmental groups had for extending a decades-old ban against drilling off the U.S. Atlantic coast.
“The bureau's decision reflects a carefully analyzed and balanced approach that will allow us to increase our understanding of potential offshore resources while protecting the human, marine, and coastal environments,” Walter Cruickshank, acting director of the Ocean Energy Management Bureau, said in a statement.
These sonic cannons already are in use in the western Gulf of Mexico, off Alaska and other offshore oil operations around the world. They are towed behind boats, sending strong sound pulses into the ocean every 10 seconds or so. The pulses reverberate beneath the sea floor and bounce back to the surface, where they are measured by hydrophones. Computers translate the data into high-resolution, three-dimensional images.
“It's like a sonogram of the Earth,” said Andy Radford, a petroleum engineer at the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas trade association in Washington, D.C. “You can't see the oil and gas, but you can see the structures in the earth that might hold oil and gas.”
The surveys can have other benefits, including mapping habitats for marine life, identifying solid undersea flooring for wind energy turbines, and locating spots where sand can be collected for beach restoration. But fossil fuel mostly funds this research, which produces data held as energy company secrets and disclosed only to the government.
The bureau estimates that 4.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 37.5 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas lies beneath federal waters from Florida to Maine. Oil lobbyists say drilling for it could generate $195 billion in investment and spending between 2017 and 2035, creating thousands of jobs and contributing $23.5 billion per year to the economy.
The North Atlantic zone remains off-limits for now, apparently for political reasons. While some states have passed drilling bans, Virginia and the Carolinas requested the seismic surveys to grow their economies, bureau officials said Friday.
In any case, the area to be mapped is in federal waters, beyond the reach of state law.
The sonic cannons often are fired continually for weeks or months, and multiple mapping projects may operate simultaneously. To get permits, companies will need to have whale-spotting observers onboard and do undersea acoustic tests to avoid nearby species. Certain habitats will be closed during birthing or feeding seasons.
Still, underwater microphones have picked up blasts from these sonic cannons over thousands of miles, and the constant banging poses unavoidable dangers for marine life, scientists say. Whales and dolphins depend on being able to hear their own much less powerful echolocation to feed, communicate and keep in touch with their family groups across hundreds of miles. Even fish and crabs navigate and communicate by sound, said Grant Gilmore, an expert on fish ecology in Vero Beach.
“We don't know what the physiological effects are. It could be permanent hearing damage in many of these creatures just by one encounter with a high-energy signal,” Gilmore said.
More than 16 communities from Florida to New Jersey passed resolutions opposing or raising concerns about the seismic testing and offshore drilling, including St. Augustine, where the local economy relies on beach tourism and fishing.
“Florida has already felt the devastating effects of an uncontrolled oil release with the Deepwater Horizon event of which cleanup efforts are still ongoing,” said John Morris, a county commissioner from St. Augustine. “Any oil spill, large or small, off the coast of St. Johns County would greatly affect the county's economy.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.