Wednesday, October 4, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, October 4, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Challenge to seismic airguns in Gulf says they harm marine life

Seismic airguns that blast through the water trying to find oil and gas reserves make it more difficult — sometimes impossible — for marine life to feed, communicate and reproduce. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — Environmental groups brought a federal complaint Thursday over a substantial increase approved in the Trump administration of seismic airgun survey leases that pinpoint oil and gas deposits, but injure or kill marine life in the process. 

“The oil industry’s horrifically loud testing threatens the very existence of the Gulf of Mexico whale, and it’ll do tremendous harm to other marine mammals,” Kristen Monsell, legal director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Oceans Program said in a statement. “Wreaking this kind of havoc to find new fossil fuels makes zero sense as the climate crisis accelerates.”

Seismic airguns are used to send intense sounds of over 250 decibels to penetrate deep into the seafloor and rebound to the surface for analysis every 10-12 seconds all day every day, sometimes for months at a time. The same patches of ocean are revisited over and over, as companies each do their own seismic survey, and don’t share data with other companies. 

But, while the airguns help fossil fuel companies to locate oil and gas reserves, they destroy sensitive acoustic habitats for fish, whales, dolphins and other marine creatures. 

“The ocean is a world of sound,” Michael Jasny, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview. “It travels far more efficiently below the water.”

At close range, the sound can kill marine life. But extensive literature has found that the effects can spread for hundreds of miles, as marine animals use sound to feed, find mates, avoid predators, find their young — virtually everything they have to do to survive and reproduce. 

Many species are at risk, especially in the Gulf of Mexico where marine populations are still recovering from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which polluted thousands of square miles in the gulf. The species that faces the most danger is the Rice’s whale, a cetacean that lives in the Gulf of Mexico and has only about 50 individuals in its population remaining. 

“The amount of activity covered by the rule is enormous — 1600 activity days per year,” Jasny said. "That means multiple surveys are taking place every hour of every day.”

Five groups led by the NRDC brought Thursday's lawsuit in Baltimore, alleging violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The MMPA only allows for a small number of marine mammals to be harmed, but the agency insisted in the rule that the increase in seismic airgun usage would only have a minimal impact on marine life  — even though they found that it would cause marine mammals to be harmed 8 million times over the next five years. 

And 8 million is a very conservative estimate put out by the agency, Jasny said — one that isn’t based in science. 

“They found a way to get around it,” Synthia Sarthou, executive director of Healthy Gulf, one of the co-plaintiffs, said in an interview. 

The rule increasing the leases went into effect in April. 

“The fossil fuel inclinations of the previous administration have made the violations here particularly egregious,” Jasny said. 

As of June 2021, there were more 2,000 oil and gas leases in the Gulf, which covered nearly 12 million acres of ocean floor. Over 100 million additional acres are available for leasing. 

Categories / Business, Energy, Environment, Government

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.