East Coast governors wrong to oppose Trump’s plan for seismic testing in Atlantic

If you care about our nation’s economy and jobs, now is not the time to oppose seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean. Yet that is precisely what several East Coast governors have done in an effort to block oil and natural gas exploration and production on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf.

Those who disparage seismic testing ignore that it has been used for many years — principally in the Gulf of Mexico but also in the Atlantic — to determine the location and size of oil and gas resources. Seismic testing is the process of sending sound into the water to generate an image of what is below the ocean floor. Sound waves are bounced off subsea rock formations, and the waves that reflect back to the surface are captured by recording sensors. Analyzing the time that waves take to return provides valuable data about rock types and possible oil and gas deposits.  Seismic testing is similar to the use of ultrasound in medicine.

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Just as physicians today use MRI technology to image an area that previously had been imaged by X-ray technology, geophysicists are using and enhancing the most modern technology for seismic testing to make evaluations that are great improvements over data from testing done decades ago. What’s more, geophysical imaging reduces the risk of harming marine wildlife by increasing the likelihood that exploratory wells will successfully tap oil and gas and reducing the number of wells that need to be drilled in a given area.

It is extremely naïve and foolish of the governors to pretend that clamping a ban on seismic is in the best interest of people living in coastal states. To the contrary, safely and responsibly producing oil and natural gas on key parts of the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf is in the public interest — and seismic testing is integral to that development.

What’s more, seismic testing is needed for government and industry research to advance our understanding of the oceans. It is also used to find sand for beach nourishment projects and to evaluate the sea floor for offshore wind turbines.

The National Marine Fisheries Service recently announced that it has selected five companies to conduct seismic testing off the Atlantic Coast from Delaware to Florida. The permits would allow surveys in areas that haven’t been explored for oil and gas in more than three decades.

The governors, however, claim the tests would do serious harm to marine mammals and fisheries. But safeguards used by seismic operators have been effective in minimizing or avoiding harm to wildlife. In 2014, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), in an environmental impact statement, said there “is no documented scientific evidence” that seismic testing with the use of air guns poses any harm to marine mammals. BOEM said it couldn’t find a single “documented case of a marine mammal or sea turtle being killed by the sound from an air gun.”

Energy companies need the information from seismic testing to begin exploratory testing. But the idea of opening up the Atlantic to offshore drilling is our unique political moment, combined with the appeal of economic dividends, that may turn oil and gas production into reality. The United States is blessed with substantial reserves of oil and gas off the Atlantic Coast and it is nothing short of folly not to exploit those abundant resources. East Coast states stand to gain hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and royalties as the need for increased oil and gas supplies continues to grow.

The governors’ outcry over seismic testing is unfounded. We shouldn’t minimize the extent to which the decades-long debate over seismic testing — and offshore drilling — has hampered local economies. It’s time to accept the critical role that seismic testing plays in energy production and scientific research and start applauding a plan premised on obtaining valuable data about oil and gas reserves.

Robert W. Chase, Ph.D., P.E., was a professor and chair of the Department of Petroleum Engineering and Geology at Marietta College from 1978 until his retirement in 2015. He has consulted for several energy companies and previously worked for the Department of Energy. He is on the board of directors of Producers Services Corporation in Zanesville, Ohio, which serves the oil and gas fracking industry.