Follow-up on the Arctic Five Year Oil and Gas exploration plan

A few weeks back we asked you all to sign on to a petition addressed to NOAA chief Dr. Jane Lubchenko expressing concerns about the rampant expansion of Arctic oil and gas exploration and production (E&P). Thanks to your participation and the outreach efforts of World Wildlife Fund we pulled in over 8500 signatures!

While it remains to be seen how effective the petition will be, your signatures were submitted along with our comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Arctic Five-year Oil and Gas Exploration Plan (DEIS) – which was the specific focus of our concern.

Our comments drilled down into noise impacts only (pardon the pun), leaving comments on the impacts of oil spills, effluent discharge, drilling mud disposal, methane and other gas releases, physical habitat disruption, ship strikes, and the synergistic impacts of increased human activities to others.

While we brought up new data on the disruptions of seismic surveys, our comments also highlighted the noise sources from new “sub-sea” and deepwater technologies which have not yet been evaluated for noise impacts. These include seafloor processing, thruster-stabilized drilling platforms, and acoustic communication systems for autonomous vessel and equipment control.

We also brought up the point that while the DEIS evaluates various chronic noise sources independently (and thus constrained only by a 160dB re: 1µPa mitigation threshold) the ongoing noises of each of these technologies become an aggregate noise field that should be framed under the “continuous noise” mitigation threshold of 120 dB.

Consideration of aggregate and cumulative impacts has been detailed in a paper published this month in Bio Science, “A New Framework for Assessing the Effects of Anthropogenic Sound on Marine Mammals in a Rapidly Changing Arctic”.

Scientists, indigenous hunters, fishermen, environmental activists, conservationists, the British Parliament, American citizens, and even some enlightened American politicians are all trying to put the brakes on drilling the arctic. We all know that there is a lot at stake and none of us want to see this pristine environment destroyed just for a few years of petroleum profits.

But even with the ongoing global incidents of oil spills and other environmental damage (Shell had over 200 oil spills last year alone!) the Oilmen have been driving the issue of “need” solely based on the price of gas at the pump.

Hopefully cooler minds will prevail, regulators will heed our collective warnings (substantiated by your signatures) and Arctic Oil Extraction plans will be “put on ice” for an indefinite period of time.

Tracking walrus’ movement using only one ear

A recent paper was published by marine research firm JASCO on localizing walruses using a single hydrophone. The technique they have refined is detailed in the article and involves assessing “multipath signals” – echoes from the sea surface and seafloor – along with the direct signal to track the movements of walruses in the Arctic. This is remarkable because locating a sound source usually involves two or more receivers.

For example, all terrestrial vertebrates have two ears which allow us to locate sound sources. We do this using a number of different cues. One of the obvious cues is amplitude: if the sound is louder in one ear over the other we assume that the sound source is closer to the louder ear. Another more subtle cue is ‘time of arrival’ which allows us to locate a sound source by the difference between the times it takes for the sound to arrive at one ear and the other.

These two cues serve to give us a general bead on the horizontal source of a sound – whether it is to the left or right, in front of us or somewhere in between. This method is adequate for birds, frogs, and lizards in the context of their survival needs.

But we mammals have more complex localizing needs from sound so we have developed outer ears that provide us with more subtle cues – allowing us to determine things such as how close or far, and the height or azimuth of a sound.

Mammals with movable ears such as cats and horses can use their outer ears like periscopes to hone in on a source of sound. Primates such as us humans have fixed ears, so we derive location cues from secondary reflections off the pinnae of our ear.

It happens that all the whorls on our outer ears collect and reflect sound into our ear canal with a tiny time delay after the primary sound hits our ear drums. This is a bit like the “multipath” cues that JASCO teased out in their work (but with much less math).

These three cues – amplitude, time of arrival, and delay of the secondary reflection allows us to pinpoint the source of a sound with uncanny accuracy.

Of course marine mammals (with the exception of sea lions, polar bears, and otters) do not have outer ears. We know that they have equal, or even more complex localizing needs from sound, especially the Arctic animals that spend a good amount of time in the deep and dark waters of the Arctic winter.

It has been less than 100 years that humans have started to use sonar in marine environments. The folks at JASCO are rolling back sonar frontiers, showing us that complex data can be derived from single receivers.

Marine mammals such as whales and seals have been adapting to their acoustic environment for 20-30 million years. It stands to reason that these animals have evolved some pretty complex adaptations to sound perception.

Hopefully we can come to understand and learn from some of these adaptations before we cloud out their arctic environment with sounds to which they have not adapted.

Jasco graph describing walrus localization

Fossil Fuel Noise in the Arctic – website launches!

If you have been anywhere within earshot of the media recently you may have noticed that the Oilmen are on a bit of a rampage. Any sustainable energy program, environmental regulation, or legal challenge that does not promote their agenda is met with apoplectic derision as a “job killer” or worse.

Oil Seeking ArmadaOne of the drivers behind this is the American Petroleum Institutes (API) strategic plan to make America the #1 global oil and gas producer by 2018. API’s president Jack Gerard aims to accomplish this by expanding fossil fuel extraction on all US coasts, rolling back environmental regulations, and defending industry subsidies.

While it may just seem like the “flow of tides” in the public sector, those of us in conservation organizations are working overtime on many fronts: “Fracking,” East Coast drilling, Eastern Gulf lease expansion, Keystone XL, California Coast horizontal drilling, Outer Continental Shelf deep-water drilling, opening up the Arctic, and of course the climate impacts of these new fossil fuel energy sources – are all in play right now.

We have been anticipating this and for that last year have been working with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on a highly interactive and informative website specifically focused on the noise impacts of oil and gas operations in the Arctic.

“Don’t be a Buckethead” refers to the acoustical masking that all of the new introduced noise of industry will impose on the highly acoustic habitat of the Arctic Ocean (remember that it is mostly dark throughout the winter, setting the evolutionary stage for some amazing bio-acoustic adaptations). This point is illustrated with a fun and quirky “Buckethead” video on the website.

While we believe that a “full court press” on hydrocarbon development is generally a bad idea, given what we do know (and don’t know) about the risks and impacts, drilling in the Arctic is completely unacceptable.

Please help us halt this foolhardy proposal. Visit the Buckethead site to learn more – or cut to the chase and sign our petition to the National Marine Fisheries Service asking them to do their job and protect the pristine Arctic Ocean from industrial compromise.

Then visit the site…

The Arctic is changing fast, and it’s going to cost us a lot

I’ve just finished reviewing a 1600 page “Draft Environmental Impact Statement” (DEIS) issued for public comments about the five year plan for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. The objective of the “draft” is to provide US citizens the opportunity to chime in on how – and if – we want the US Arctic waters surveyed for oil and gas deposits.

It is particularly ironic that just as the DEIS was being issued Shell Oil began dealing with a huge oil spill off the coast of Nigeria and another spill in the Gulf of Mexico (which occurred during the same sort of exploratory drilling that is being proposed in the Arctic), and Chevron is currently dealing with yet another platform explosion off the Nigerian coast. This tragic irony is punctuated throughout the DEIS by the recurring statement that an oil spill would be “highly unlikely.”

The rosy assumptions of “negligible impacts” colors the entire DEIS; the subjective term “unlikely” is peppered throughout when addressing impacts of seismic airgun surveys, discharge of drilling “muds” and chemical waste, noise from shipping and air transport, air pollution, and noise from icebreakers. And while the “highly unlikely” oil spill is on everyone’s mind, many other adverse impacts of oil and gas exploration are not even addressed in the DEIS; for example the persistent noise of thruster-stabilized drilling platforms, underwater acoustical communications equipment, and erection of “jack-up rigs.” While these noises may not be as loud as the seismic airgun surveys addressed in the DEIS (which produce continuous series of explosions that can be heard hundreds to thousands of miles away in the ocean) they will nonetheless produce a chronic smog of noise pollution which will compromise the acoustical habitat that fish, whales, and other marine life depend on to communicate, find food, and evade predators.

It is clear that the intention of the exploration strategies proposed in the DEIS are not to “just find out what is out there,” but rather to find out where extraction operations will yield the best results. If there is one thing that is “highly unlikely,” it is that fossil fuel found in the exploration phase will remain untapped.

Clearing the way to extraction is the fundamental assumption made by issuing this exploration DEIS, and as such it is the gateway to rapid expansion of oil and gas operations in the Arctic – the impacts of which will make the proposed exploration impacts in the DEIS pale.

But there are those who argue that securing domestic energy supplies (and the millions of jobs that the American Petroleum Industry is promising us) will be worth the risks. Unfortunately the cost is extremely high. This is not just the cost to the environment, nor the cost of tax subsidies we give to the oil industry, nor the individual costs we all bear every time we drive our cars to the pump. The ultimate cost is the response of our planet to climate change. The impacts of this are most apparent is in the Arctic – with a second irony being that the receding Arctic ice cap induced by climate change is exposing ever more of the deadly treasure.

Time and time again, by way of systematic justifications of some environmental compromise or other we have been eroding the environmental health of the very habitat that we depend on for our own life support. This is evidenced by the continuous acceleration of species extinctions world-wide. This trend points to the fact that soon enough humans will find ourselves near the top of the “endangered” list – unless we begin to make broad systematic changes in the way we engage with our limited planetary habitat. Drilling in the Arctic is a bad way to start.

The Arctic is on Everybody’s Sonar Lately

Last week we attended an Acoustic Society conference in San Diego. This time I didn’t deliver a paper so it was mostly a reconnaissance trip – both to catch up with colleagues and to introduce Gwynn, our Digital Assets Manager to the field.

It is not a surprise that many of the bioacoustic papers that were presented involved the Arctic – both in terms of the acoustic ecology and habitat assessment, and in learning more about the animals in the area.

Map of polar ice melt back

Map of polar ice melt

As the “ground zero” for global warming, the Arctic is changing extremely fast. Due to accelerated melt-back of the ice-cap entire expanses of the sea are being exposed to daylight which may not have seen the sun since the late Miocene period (over five million years ago). We all know that this is distressing the Polar Bears, but it is also threatening the Ribbon, Ringed, and Bearded seals, which live exclusively on sea ice.

Sound recordings are being made documenting animal vocalizations, baseline ambient noise, and the rise in human-generated noise. New sounds are being discovered, and new impacts are being noticed.

And this is none too soon.

This last summer Shell Oil was cleared to drill three exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea, and just last Thursday the Department of Interior released a five year offshore drilling plan that includes opening up more leases in the Arctic.

Additionally, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will soon be releasing the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for their five year Arctic plan for public comments. Given that the petroleum industry has been pushing to get their pipes in the Arctic waters we expect that there will be much to comment on.

Ribbon Seal: Exploratorium

Ribbon Seal: Photo by Exploratorium

We have been anticipating this and spent a good amount of time this last year with Dave Aplin of WWF, Michael Jasny of NRDC, and the good folks at Bean Creativedeveloping a highly featured and interactive website focused on the impacts of offshore oil industry noise on Arctic habitats.

We’ll be launching this in the next few weeks to get everyone up to speed on the issues so that we can all provide focused and informed critiques of the NMFS plan.

Stay tuned; given the voracious appetite of the Oil Men we’ll need “all hands on deck” to protect the Arctic from their oily (and noisy) assaults.

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