Mapping the ocean is the first step for responsible offshore drilling

Mapping the ocean is the first step for responsible offshore drilling

Now is the time to proceed with seismic surveys of the Atlantic between New Jersey and Florida. Mapping the ocean bottom with new and safe technology will provide a better understanding of how much oil and natural gas is available offshore.

For the past year, the National Marine Fisheries Service has been reviewing applications from companies to conduct oil and gas seismic surveys spanning the Atlantic coast. The surveys would be the first step in President TrumpDonald John TrumpLondon terror suspect’s children told authorities he complained about Trump: inquiry The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Trump to nominate retiring lawmaker as head of trade agency MORE’s plan to open up coastal waters to oil and gas production. However, actual drilling would still be many years off and might not even be worth the effort unless the surveys showed significant oil and gas deposits.


Those who disparage offshore drilling — and are eager to ban it — ignore the fact that the U.S. Energy Information Administration expects the need for oil and gas to grow through 2040, and possibly beyond. Today, the United States would be unable to meet the demand for energy supplies without oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere.


But some will say we already have plenty of inexpensive oil. However, when the list of major oil exporters include Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, just to name a few, counting on long-term stability in the oil market is a fool's errand.

The oil and gas industry estimates that drilling in the Atlantic could add 1.3 million barrels equivalent per day to U.S. energy production, which is about 70 percent of the current output from the Gulf of Mexico. But that estimate could be understated — or too high — because the last energy exploration of the offshore Atlantic was done in 1988, with equipment that was primitive by today’s standards.

The question isn’t whether to conduct seismic surveys in the Atlantic, but how to do the tests safely without harming marine life.

Seismic surveys are done with air guns, which produce sound waves. The sound is directed downward through the water and bounces off subsurface geological formations. Computer programs use the data to develop maps of the ocean floor, showing where oil and gas resources are located.

The oil industry’s contention that seismic testing causes negligible impact on marine life is supported by the National Science Foundation’s division of Ocean Sciences and Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. Scientists say that seismic surveys have been conducted safely for decades in the Gulf of Mexico and other areas off the U.S. coast and around the world. 

I am not one of those who believe the days of offshore drilling are behind us. For example, I believe that when it comes to domestic oil and gas production, special attention should be given to innovative uses of drones and robots in the deep-sea inspection and repair of underwater facilities.

These and other advanced technologies such as seismic imaging are making it possible to find and produce oil and gas in ultra-deep waters. These advances have made production safer, more environmentally benign, and more economically efficient.

Offshore oil and gas production is just one aspect of the energy process that has moved America beyond energy independence to become the world’s dominant energy producer. This is a positive development for consumers and oil and gas workers, one that Atlantic coastal states should use to their advantage.

J. Winston Porter, Ph.D., is an energy and environmental consultant, based in Atlanta. He previously served as an assistant administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response.