Blowing smoke: Tobacco science and oil science vs. actual science
© Getty Images

In July, a scientist from the International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC), a trade association for companies that get paid by the oil industry to fire seismic airguns in the search for oil, testified at a city council meeting in Wilmington, N.C. The city council was discussing a resolution to oppose seismic airguns and offshore drilling activities off the state's coast.


The scientist, Dr. Robert Gisiner, was making the case for seismic airgun use, where explosions of sound are used to search the seafloor for oil and gas deposits. Mounting evidence demonstrates that the loud and relentless noise created by airguns disrupts marine ecosystems, showing harmful effects on a variety of animals, from miniscule scallop larvae to the endangered North Atlantic right whale. While attempting to discredit this evidence, Gisiner made this comment:

If I put scallop larvae in front of a speaker three inches away, and I play seismic sound as loud as that speaker will go for 90 hours, I can hurt those scallop larvae. But that's not seismic survey, that's not how it's done. That's tobacco science. Not just industry can do tobacco science. Non-governmental organizations are very good at it too.

Tobacco science.

The irony here is extraordinary. Sure, a trade association scientist attacking the evidence that might harm his industry's bottom line is nothing new. People in public health call that a play from "the tobacco industry playbook." But for that paid expert to have the audacity to accuse his opponents of doing the very thing he is at that moment doing is a breathtaking turnaround.

In past decades, tobacco companies spent millions of dollars on "research" and "expert" testimony to create doubts about the very clear science demonstrating the links between smoking and a host of serious health problems. A recent study from Stanford University described a group of doctors who testified on behalf of the tobacco industry in more than 50 cases, telling jurors that science did not prove that smoking had caused those cases of cancer.

But if you take tobacco industry testimony, and replace the words "smoking" with "seismic airguns," and "does not cause cancer" with "does not harm marine life," you would have a remarkably similar testimony to that of the oil industry.

Before Gisiner started working for the IAGC, he himself wrote in a 2006 paper that "the potential [of airguns] for causing harm to marine mammals has long been recognised." In his Wilmington testimony, Gisiner spent much time downplaying the intensity of seismic blasts, but he wrote in that same 2006 paper that "airguns produce some of the loudest manmade sounds in the ocean."

Industry representatives claim that there is no documented scientific evidence of noise from seismic activities adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities. This is misleading at best. There are many studies that have shown the effects of seismic airguns on migration, feeding, communication and reproductive behavior of whales and other marine wildlife, all of which can lead to serious consequences for individual animals. But even more concerning is the likely long-term effects this could have at the population level, especially for a species like the North Atlantic Right Whale, the population of which is now down to approximately 455 individuals.

Evidence also shows that seismic surveys can affect the health and behavior of commercially valuable fish, in some cases reducing catch rates by 50 to 80 percent. This would certainly harm coastal fishing communities.

Recently, 75 scientists wrote to the president, saying that "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."

These scientists are experts in their fields. They were not paid to sign this letter. This is not tobacco science, or oil industry science; it is sound science. Decision-makers should be listening to unbiased, independent voices like these, rather than those of industry-funded scientists when making decisions that would have irreversible consequences.

Dozens of communities on the Atlantic Coast are saying "no" to seismic airguns and offshore drilling. Seventy-five municipalities have passed formal resolutions opposing oil development in the Atlantic, and opposition is growing.

There is no doubt that we will continue to hear the tired refrain from the oil industry, repeating the phrase "there's no proof." But it's the same old smoke, and you can bet they'll keep blowing it until President Obama hears what the people, the communities and the businesses on the coasts, as well as many elected officials, are saying. They have seen the science, understand the risks and are rejecting seismic and offshore drilling. The president should see through the smoke, listen to the people and move to protect coastal residents and ecosystems instead of oil industry interests.

Savitz is vice president for Oceana in the U.S.