The endangered right whale is one of the species that would be "harassed" by seismic blasts on the mid-Atlantic coast. Photo: Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

Mid-Atlantic Seismic Blasts Halted

Oil and gas drilling companies are standing down from seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean this year, to the relief of environmental groups and wildlife advocates in the Chesapeake Bay region.

The industry said in a status conference before the U.S. District Court in South Carolina that it will not move ahead with testing for oil and gas reserves this year. The current seismic blasting authorizations expire November 30, and renewing them would require another round of environmental review and public comment.

Bay Bulletin first reported two years ago the federal approval for five companies to do seismic surveys in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Maryland and Virginia, as a first step to gas and oil offshore drilling.

The geophysical surveys use airgun arrays to explore for hydrocarbons. While the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says there is no evidence that seismic surveys harm marine life, its own studies show that the blasts can “harass” or disturb animals, which include endangered whale species.

“Effectively, this means that widespread seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic Ocean, including waters near Ocean City, MD and Delaware beaches, will not take place in the near future,” the National Aquarium in Baltimore tells Bay Bulletin.

The Aquarium has taken a strong stand against seismic surveys, saying in a statement, “At the National Aquarium, it is our mission to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures. The 160 decibels produced by seismic airgun blasting under water is louder than a rock concert and could cause undue harm to the natural environment and hundreds of marine species from fish to whales.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is equally vocal about its opposition. In response to the latest development, Vice President for Environmental Protection and Restoration Alison Prost says, “We hope this is the last straw for the terrible plan to drill for oil and gas off the coast of Virginia and Maryland,” saying it would “create unacceptable risks to coastal waters, the Chesapeake Bay, and local economies from seafood to tourism.”

Many environmental groups are still pushing for more permanent protection against seismic testing for the future.

-Meg Walburn Viviano