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North Atlantic right whales.  (Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit #665-1652)

Win for Whales, Dolphins as Obama Rejects Explosive Blasting for Oil

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced Friday rejection of pending permits for seismic airgun blasting off Mid and South Atlantic coasts

Andrea Germanos

In a move praised by conservation groups, the Obama administration on Friday announced that it rejected the six pending permit applications to conduct airgun seismic surveys for fossil fuel exploration off the Atlantic coast.

"Without a doubt, this decision will save whales, dolphins, and other animals from suffering painful hearing loss and other damage inflicted by these terrible blasts of noise," said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The federal government had already determined that up to 138,000 whales and dolphins could be harmed, and millions more disturbed, by proposed blasting in the area stretching from Delaware to Florida.

"We know that seismic airgun blasting is dangerous," declared Oceana campaign director Claire Douglass. "Seismic airguns create one of the loudest manmade sounds in the ocean, firing intense blasts of compressed air every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for weeks to months on end. The noise from these blasts is so loud that it can be heard up to 2,500 miles from the source, which is approximately the distance from Washington, D.C. to Las Vegas."

"There is no need to harm ocean wildlife in search of oil that we cannot afford to burn if we are to meet the challenge of climate change."
—Steve Mashuda, Earthjustice
"In addition to being extremely loud," she stated, "these blasts are of special concern to marine life, including fish, turtles and whales, which depend on sound for communication and survival. Numerous studies demonstrate the negative impacts that seismic airgun noise has on ocean ecosystems, including reduced catch rates of commercially valuable fish and silencing bowhead whales."

With such dangers in mind, 75 marine scientists urged (pdf) President Obama to reject the blasting, writing in 2015 that it would "have an enormous environmental footprint," and would have posed "an unacceptable risk of serious harm to marine life at the species and population levels."

The risks were noted by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in its announcement.

"In the present circumstances and guided by an abundance of caution, we believe that the value of obtaining the geophysical and geological information from new airgun seismic surveys in the Atlantic does not outweigh the potential risks of those surveys' acoustic pulse impacts on marine life," said BOEM director Abigail Ross Hopper. "Since federal waters in the Mid and South Atlantic have been removed from leasing consideration for the next five years, there is no immediate need for these surveys," referring to Obama's decision to protect those waters through 2022.

The denial of he permits, added Sakashita, "closes the door on the oil industry's attempts to pollute the Atlantic Coast and damage our ocean and climate. The Atlantic should be permanently off limits to oil drilling and exploration to safeguard wildlife and the eastern seaboard from damage and oil spills."

Already, research has backed up the argument that the time for "expanding the fossil fuel frontier" is over.

As Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda pointed out Friday, "There is no need to harm ocean wildlife in search of oil that we cannot afford to burn if we are to meet the challenge of climate change."


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