President Obama has denied all pending permits to conduct seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic Ocean, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced Friday. The blasts are used to detect oil and gas deposits deep below the ocean's surface, and they can injure or kill marine animals.
The blasting ban is just one of many pro-environmental actions from Obama made in his final weeks as president. Another recent decision includes the removal of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans from a five-year program for oil and gas development on the Outer Continental Shelf, as well as protecting parts of these oceans from future offshore drilling. The proposal would cover an area twice the size of California, extending from Delaware to Florida.
Oceana campaign director, Claire Douglas said in a statement that with offshore drilling no longer an option in this region, there would been no reason to use airgun blasting there.
"Seismic airguns create one of the loudest man-made sounds in the ocean, firing intense blasts of compressed air every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for weeks to months on end," the statement reads. "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."
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Research suggests that underwater noise pollution could negatively affect at least 55 different marine species, including several that are endangered.
The blasts "create a shock wave or pressure wave ... that wreaks havoc on anything that is 'squeezable,'" said Sean Anderson, professor of environmental science and resource management at California State University Channel Islands. "That pressure wave hits critters and essentially pops them. It's analogous to taking a sledgehammer to a tube of toothpaste. The bigger the organism is, and the more internal spaces or layers of differential tissue, the greater the damage," he told Seeker.
Anderson also stressed that the hearing damage to marine mammals from seismic blasts is often life-threatening.
"On the minimal impact end [of the blast] is short term noise which makes hearing or finding a mate impossible while the testing is going on," he explained. "But as we get closer to the blast, organisms risk damaging their hearing. The bang generally doesn't mess with fish hearing, but can easily mess with marine mammal hearing, and damage their ability to hear for either a long time to come or possibly permanently. Not good for an animal that may rely on echolocation for finding food or long-distance communication."
President Obama was initially presented with information on the threat of of seismic airgun blasting when he received a letter in 2015 from 75 marine scientists urging him to consider the widespread damage to ocean species and ecosystems.
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"Opening the U.S. East Coast to seismic airgun exploration poses an unacceptable risk of serious harm to marine life at the species and population levels, the full extent of which will not be understood until long after the harm occurs," the letter reads.
Obama's ban on airgun blasting may have some unintended environmental benefits as well.
"Not allowing the use of these super loud "air bombs" means lessening our immediate impact of mammals and fish in the survey area," Anderson said. "But it also amounts to a another hurdle for oil companies seeking to find new oil and gas deposits, and so indirectly helps to decarbonize our economy."
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