A long-awaited final federal study on the environmental impact of using seismic guns to search for oil and gas deposits off the Atlantic coast is due at the end of February, signaling future battles between Republicans and Democrats regarding offshore drilling.
The final environmental impact study on using seismic guns to explore for oil and gas from the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean energy Management has been five years in the making, and will be used to inform decisions on whether to open the Atlantic Ocean to offshore oil and gas drilling.
A seismic gun shoots compressed air into the water and reflects off the seabed to deliver information about whether oil and gas deposits lay beneath. Proponents say it reduces the costs and environmental damage of exploration, while opponents say the shots can deafen marine life, disrupt habitats and lead to eventual death.
It's a complicated matter, said Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Deputy Director Walter Cruickshank, who noted the environmental study has taken longer than usual.
"There's a lot of species out there, a lot of ocean to cover, and we're continuing to learn new things as we conduct this research," he said during a Friday hearing in the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.
At its core, though, approval of seismic guns is a discussion of expanding offshore drilling, lawmakers noted at the hearing.
"There's been a lot of talk about, 'Let's explore.' But talk is cheap. Action is needed," said Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., who noted the state's Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, along with Democratic Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe, support offshore drilling.
For now, the Obama administration's current drilling plan that runs through 2017 blocks energy development in the Atlantic Ocean. Those Atlantic blocks were included in a draft of the president's first five-year drilling plan, but he revised it following the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 workers and spewed 4.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
Drilling supporters say wading into the Atlantic could be lucrative -- an American Petroleum Institute report said it would provide 280,000 jobs and add $23.5 billion to the U.S. economy each year between 2017 and 2035.
If the federal government decides to offer oil leases in the Atlantic, it would likely come in the latter half of the next five-year drilling plan that would run through 2022, Cruickshank said.
Many Democrats hope that doesn't happen.
They warned at the hearing that U.S. laws have not strengthened enough in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon incident -- though Donald Boesch, a marine biologist who worked on a White House-convened independent commission evaluating the response to the spill, said federal regulations and industry have responded well.
Democrats maintained another spill would threaten tourism and fishing industries that support 200,000 jobs and bring in $11.8 billion annually, according to ocean conservation group Oceana.
Seismic testing would pose a risk to those industries too, said Boesch, who is president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
"There's legitimate concerns," Boesch said. "It's a matter of legitimate scientific controversy."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns that, "Increasing evidence suggests that exposure to intense underwater sound in some settings may cause certain marine mammals to strand and ultimately die." Oceana, citing federal projections, says seismic testing would injure 138,500 dolphins and whales through 2020.
"We should not be risking our fishing and tourism industries ... because the energy companies want to get their hands on a quick oil buck," said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the subcommittee.
But Republicans and industry say seismic testing has greatly improved since its early use in the 1970s.
They also noted that none of the 60 "unusual mortality events" that killed marine life since 1991 and were documented by a federal working group were the result of seismic testing.
Suggestions of a link between seismic testing and marine mammal deaths "is likely a chimera," said James Knapp, chairman of the department of earth and ocean sciences at the University of South Carolina.
Enhancements in seismic testing include the advent of 3D imaging, which witnesses credited with reducing environmental damage through curtailing exploration by drilling.
It also has helped shed light on the potentially vast resources available undersea. In the Gulf of Mexico, seismic testing revealed a resource basin five times larger than previously thought, Richie Miller, president of Spectrum Geo Inc., said during the hearing.
"We would expect the same thing just with this new technology off the East Coast," he said.