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Don’t get too worked up over Trump’s splashy offshore oil talk

Ocean, Ocean energy, Seismic Surveys No Comments »

An AEI big-picture commentary

Once again, a Presidential announcement about offshore oil development has sent the media and environmental advocates into a spasm of headlines and press releases that presumes the words being uttered in DC actually reflect on-the-ground (or in this case, under-the-waves) reality. In late 2016, there was effusive praise for an effectively symbolic Obama decision to not offer leases in Alaskan and Atlantic waters (AEI’s “much ado about not much” post questioned the prevailing celebratory outburst). Fourteen months later, we’ve got a mirror-image outcry over Trump’s base-pumping proclamation about “unleashing America’s offshore oil and gas potential” through a National Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program for the years 2019-2024.

This one sure does sound bad: opening up 90 percent of our continental shelf, with 47 lease areas including regions like New England and the Pacific Northwest that haven’t even had vague proposals for decades. Despite the boom in American oil and natural gas production that occurred during the Obama years, with much of the increased production being exported, the new administration is intent on exploiting as-yet untapped deposits, ignoring the climate imperative to leave as much oil in the ground as we can. Vincent DeVito, a Counselor for Energy Policy at the Department of Interior, practically twirls his mustache with this comment from the official DOI press release:

“By proposing to open up nearly the entire OCS for potential oil and gas exploration, the United States can advance the goal of moving from aspiring for energy independence to attaining energy dominance. This decision could bring unprecedented access to America’s extensive offshore oil and gas resources and allows us to better compete with other oil-rich nations.”

Sure, that’s just the ticket; these eager beavers can’t wait to dominate a fading industry—a decade from now, since that’s how long it takes to get offshore wells on line.

And so begins a two-year planning process that will needlessly and expensively repeat the one just completed in 2016.  For we already have a National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, with a finalized plan set to run from 2017-2022, which the government (both federal and states), oil industry and energy consulting firms, and environmental groups spent two years and who knows how much money to complete.  As always, these plans are revisited, revised, and occasionally overhauled every five years. But this gang may not be around in 2021-2022 when it’ll actually be time to once again jump into this particular vat of no-fun-for-anyone. So let’s just tear it up and do it all again now!

But before we get too caught up with the swarm of freaked out bees in our bonnet, let’s step back and consider the actual energy development landscape as it exists in the real world, as distinct from the fever dreams of this administration’s oil and gas cheerleaders. Read the rest of this entry »

More evidence of fish being affected by shipping, energy development noise

Ocean, Ocean energy, shipping No Comments »

A couple of recent studies have added to the increasing evidence that anthropogenic ocean noise can have deleterious effects on fish. As the years go by, it’s becoming clear that it’s not just whales and dolphins that are struggling with human noise in the sea.

A lab-based study of European sea bass found that recordings of pile driving sounds (often associated with bridge, port, or wind farm construction) and of drilling sounds triggered subtle yet troubling changes in behavior. The sudden bursts of pile driving induced a startle response, while both kinds of sounds increased stress, as measured by the fishes’ respiration rate. In addition, both sources of human noise appeared to suppress their normal predator inspection behavior, which could make them more susceptible to predation (though after a half hour of drilling noise, the bass returned to normal anti-predator behavior).

Ilaria Spiga, a doctoral candidate at Newcastle University and the lead author of the study, explained, “Exposure to underwater noises can make it harder for fishes to detect and react to predators. . . If fishes actively avoid areas where these sounds are present it could prevent them from entering spawning grounds, or affect communication between individuals.”

The question of communication was at the heart of a new study from the same team that has been investigating how shipping noise can reduce the communication space of whales. The new research, led by Jenni Stanley, focuses on two key commercial fish, cod and haddock. Utilizing the network of bottom-mounted hydrophones that they’ve deployed in Massachusetts Bay for the past decade, the researchers recorded the grunts of cod and the “knocks” of haddock, along with the noise of ships in the area. The most striking effect was the difference in noise levels between the cod’s winter spawning site near the Boston shipping lanes and their spring spawning site near the fishing fleets of Cape Ann, north of Boston. While there were many more boats near the spring site, these smaller vessels resulted in overall sound levels 11-15dB lower than at the winter site, which in turn allowed the cod to maintain dramatically larger communication space. (The distances over which cod could be heard were not measured directly, but rather calculated based on the source levels of their grunts and the prevailing levels of ship noise.)

At the quieter spring sites, the mean communication distance was 15 meters (below 11m during the noisiest 10% of the time, and over 19m at the quietest 10% of times), while in the winter sites, they could only be heard out to 2.7 meters (with 10% extremes of under 2.1m and over 3.4m at the very best of times).  The haddock spawning sites had intermediate noise levels, and at their loudest could be heard at slightly longer range than the winter cod, though a weaker form of their call had the shortest range of any of those assessed.

The authors note (see full paper here):

Mounting evidence suggests that acoustic communication can affect the survival and reproductive success of fishes, including direct evidence for Atlantic cod. . . .Unlike haddock who have a wide acoustic repertoire, Atlantic cod are thought to be less versatile vocalists during courtship. . . If anthropogenic sound reduces the efficiency of the vocalizations utilized by these species, this interference could potentially impact their reproductive success and survival through the incorrect assessment of the quality of potential mates or competitors, reduction in the ability to attract mates and/or the mistiming of gamete release.

While stressing that we still have much to learn about how fish may compensate for noise (by using other cues to find each other, vocalizing during quieter moments, increasing the intensity of their sounds, etc.), the authors conclude:

This research highlights the need to gain a better understanding of the spatial and temporal use of unique habitats that are predictably used for critical life history events in declining populations. Identifying and better understanding these consequences [at all levels of the food chain] is important to advancing the management of shared acoustic space.

BC ship-quieting study stymied by lack of orcas

Bioacoustics, Science, shipping No Comments »

Last fall’s innovative 2-month voluntary slow-down of ships traveling to and from the Port of Vancouver was successful on one count—average overall shipping noise was reduced by 44%—but a stark absence of the normally abundant resident orcas stymied the equally important second line of inquiry: how would reducing the noise level, but spreading more moderate noise over longer time periods, affect orca behavior?

About 60 percent of the ships transiting Haro Strait complied with the voluntary speed restrictions; even this level of participation succeeded in reducing the overall level of ship noise by 2.5 decibels, very close to the 3dB target set by the International Whaling Commission a decade ago. Thanks to the logarithmic scale of decibel measurements, a 3dB reduction amounts to cutting the sound energy in half. This is great news, a real-world confirmation that the noise of global shipping can be reduced relatively easily—albeit by increasing transit time.

It’s this element that marine mammal experts remain uncertain about. Slower ships remain audible for longer during their passage, though at a lower volume; perhaps worse, the quiet periods between the passage of large ships became notably shorter and noisier, thanks to the lingering presence of ships in the mid-distance. What is more livable: a constant lower noise level or trading off louder periods for interims with relatively little noise? As researcher Scott Veirs notes. “I’m not sure which I would prefer, but we definitely don’t know which the whales prefer.”

An excellent in-depth article on the Seattle nonprofit news site Crosscut tells the tale of the researchers waiting on shore to monitor whale behavior. But rather than seeing whales on most days, there were no orcas at all during the first month of the slowdown, and only six appearances in the second month. A stark lack of salmon kept the orcas out of the area; salmon shortages are the primary factor driving the decline in the Southern Resident orca population. A recent modeling study by a diverse group of researchers suggested that increasing salmon numbers by 15% while also reducing shipping noise by half would allow the resident population to recover. (The decrease in salmon numbers is compounded by a boom in populations of seals and sea lions, who also eat salmon.)

The Crosscut piece zeroes in on the questions facing British Columbia, where new oil and gas ports and expansion of existing pipelines could add even more ships to the mix:

Piloting his 31-foot research boat Wishart back to Seattle from the San Juan Island study site, Rob Williams mused on his 20 years studying killer whales. “A whole lot of science has been done already,” he said. It may be time to start making some  difficult policy decisions about vessel noise, Williams said, and that means weighing safety issues and economic tradeoffs alongside concern for the whales. A number of factors, including the Canadian government’s approval of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline to export oil to Asia, could drive future increases in Port of Vancouver vessel traffic.
“What we have to do next is to have some really uncomfortable conversations. . .about how much of this acoustic space do we think it is fair to ask the whales to give up.” Williams said. “And how much are we willing to give up to have killer whales persist?”
“And those aren’t science questions,” he continued. “They are really tough value judgments.”