U.S. oil exploration raises concern after proposed use of air cannons in the Atlantic is revealed to be potentially deadly to sea mammals. The proposal comes from the Interior Department and recommends surveying areas that were scanned for oil in the 1980’s, but the new technology will allow companies to hunt for oil without having to actually drill, saving money and potential spills. However, there is great concern that the proposed use of the air cannons will result in the deafening and even death of hundreds of thousands of sea mammals, including whales and dolphins. The air cannons work in a similar fashion as the echolocation used by the whales and dolphins, which is partly why they are so susceptible to harm from this practice.
The proposed method of oil hunting involves the use of compressed air cannons to create a loud boom under the surface of the ocean, which propagates through the water and into the sea floor. There it continues down into the sand and rock, and whatever oil deposits may be in the area as well. As the sound waves enter different materials they bend in different ways, and when they reflect back to the survey craft these differences can be tracked to inform crew members what the sea bed is composed of. This is similar to how radar systems and echolocation work, tracking differences in sound waves as they return to map the area. The problem is that the booms created are 100,000 times louder than a jet engine and they fire every few seconds, often for months at a time, sometimes up to a year. This proposed method of U.S. oil exploration raises concern because this unending cacophony has the potential to deafen, disorient, and even kill animals that rely on echolocation for hundreds of miles. Young creatures are particularly susceptible, and even creatures that do not rely on echolocation can be stunned or killed should they be struck by the intense shock waves.
Initial surveys of the areas where air blasting has been proposed took place in the 1970’s and 1980’s using techniques and technologies that are now obsolete. Those surveys estimated that there are roughly 3.3 billion barrels worth of oil along the Atlantic coast. At the time this was considered too little to be worth investing in and the areas have been closed to exploration ever since. This, and the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, have made it difficult to garner support for renewed exploration but the current climate of chronic oil shortages have opened the debate once again. As U.S. oil exploration raises concern there are many factors to take into account, especially that the long-term effects of air blast surveying on sea creatures has never been documented, as well as the fact that there could be even less oil in the area than expected. What it boils down to is whether or not the potential deaths of billions of animals is worth recovering billions of barrels of oil. And once those have all been drained, where will we drill next?
By Daniel O’Brien