Japan might still hunt whales the old-fashioned way, but the U.S. prefers killing them softly.
In a move that spells immediate trouble for marine life and problems for global climate in the long run, the Obama administration has approved use of sonic cannons to map the ocean floor off the eastern united states — a step toward eventually opening coastal waters to oil and gas drilling.
Sonic cannons paint a picture of the seabed by firing sound waves “100 times louder than a jet engine” through the water, then using hydrophones to measure how the waves are reflected back to the surface. The “sonogram of the earth,” as one petroleum industry spox called it, will be used to apply for drilling leases, which become available in 2018. The government plan is to open up waters from Florida to Delaware to fossil fuel extraction.
Sonic cannons have been used in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Alaskan coast, and were a matter of much debate for waters off California. What is not really in debate is that these sound blasters cause havoc with marine life — especially species dependent on sonic communication, like whales, dolphins, sea turtles and even some fish.
An environmental impact study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the agency responsible for the approval process, estimates 138,000 sea creatures could be harmed, including “nine of the 500 north Atlantic right whales remaining in the world.”
The whales spawn in waters off the coasts of Georgia and Florida.
Right whale expert Scott Krause of the John H. Prescott Marine Laboratory in Boston told the AP that this amounts to a “giant experiment” on endangered species.
It is also a giant experiment on the planet, though one where the results are, at least partially, already known.
Climatologists warn that in order to keep global warming anywhere close to an end-of-Century two-degree increase (considered the most the world can tolerate without catastrophic consequences), most of the planet’s remaining hydrocarbon reserves should remain unexploited.
“We have to stay within a finite, cumulative amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere,” said U.N. climate chief Christina Figueres in an April speech. “We have already used more than half of that budget.”
In order to do that, Figueres said, “Three-quarters of the fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground.”
Expanding U.S. offshore drilling is not a step in that direction. Quite the opposite, in fact. Even with current rates of extraction — and this is of the known reserves — the world is expected to max out its carbon “budget” in only 32 years.
While the administration made a big show of proposing new limits on carbon emissions last month — a show coal, oil and gas producers were quick to pan as too harsh — those limits are what serious climate scientists might call “marginal changes.” It is hard for the U.S. to play the role of climate leader if it is unwilling to attack the problem at its core.
The Obama administration likes to tout its “all of the above” strategy in an attempt to keep corporate stakeholders and environmental advocates within reach, but continuing to map and exploit new oil and gas reserves isn’t a strategy so much as it is politics as usual.
The sea life off the Atlantic coast will find that out sooner; terrestrial residents sooner or later. Carefully managing known reserves as part of a rapid transition to truly GHG-neutral, truly renewable resources the only kind of “all of the above” the earth can tolerate.