Outgoing President Barack Obama made another last-minute effort to secure his environmental legacy last week, when he formally denied all pending permits to conduct seismic airgun blasting in the Altantic Ocean. The practice is used to search for oil and gas deposits below the ocean’s surface, but conservationists say it poses unique threats to the ocean’s wildlife, and that it can disrupt entire marine ecosystems. This new move not only protects vulnerable ecosystems from the direct effect of the tests – it also sends a message to oil and gas companies that new development in the Atlantic is not welcomed by the federal government or coastal communities.
Seismic airgun testing is conducted by blasting intense bursts of compressed air into the ocean continuously for weeks or even months on end. The noise from these blasts is loud enough to be heard up to 2,500 miles away from the source and is intensely disruptive to many forms of marine life which depend on their ability to detect sound in order to communicate and survive – including fish, sea turtles, and whales. Some of these species, like the right whale, are critically endangered.
This is more than simply an environmental issue: it’s also an economic problem. As Oceana has pointed out in their campaigns, research shows that seismic blasting ends up reducing catch rates of commercially valuable fish. So this decision by the Obama administration protects communities that depend on income from fishing to survive.
The decision to ban airgun blasting is one of several groundbreaking environmental decisions Barack Obama has made in the closing days of his term: he’s also shut the door on new Arctic and Atlantic drilling over the next five years, and created two new national monuments in the Western US.