Energy companies could soon be able to search for oil and natural gas off the South Carolina coast using a controversial method, after a decision by federal regulators moved one step closer to future drilling off the East Coast.
The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on Friday established requirements for the use of “seismic airguns,” which are towed behind vessels and shoot blasts of compressed air through the water and into the seabed. Researchers use reflections from the blast to map out the ocean floor, identify underwater fault lines, and analyze geologic formations that could hint about buried oil and gas deposits.
The BOEM decision only provides a framework for future energy exploration in the south and mid-Atlantic. Companies seeking to survey in the region will still need to get individual permits any time they seek to use the seismic air guns. The devices have been used for decades in the Gulf of Mexico.
Environmental groups condemned the decision, saying the loud blasts can deafen, stun, and even kill marine wildlife. “For more than 30 years, the Atlantic coast has been off limits to offshore drilling,” Oceana campaign director Claire Douglass said in a statement. “Today, our government appears to be folding to the pressure of Big Oil and its big money.”
Supporters say conservationists exaggerate the guns’ impact, noting the federal government has never blamed a marine mammal death on the device.
However, any seismic surveys off South Carolina’s coast are still years away. BOEM’s current drilling plan does not allow energy development activities in the Atlantic (with the exception of wind) until at least 2017. The agency will likely make any decisions about leasing ocean tracts for energy development
“I don’t think anything is necessarily going to start up overnight,” University of South Carolina geology professor James Knapp said. “But the door is at least open now that… they can now look at each one of these permit applications on its own merits.”
Knapp, who chairs USC’s Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, said the BOEM’s actions last week seem to indicate the Obama Administration is moving towards eventually allowing oil and natural gas drilling in the Atlantic.
“There would certainly be the expectation that this decision… suggests that they would be heading in the direction of opening up at least some of those areas in the Atlantic (Outer Continental Shelf) for future exploration,” he said.
South Carolina-based environmental groups are basing their concerns about the potential for oil rigs, rather than the seismic guns themselves. “Do we want the infrastructure that having gas and oil rigs is going to require on our shores and do we want to take the risk of another BP-like spill on South Carolina beaches?” the Coastal Conservation League’s North Coast director Nancy Cave told WPDE-TV on Monday.