Seismic air guns used for oil and gas exploration produce the loudest underwater noise next to explosions and warfare, and they can have devastating impacts on marine life.
As a fisherman from Newfoundland put it, “Whenever a seismic boat goes past and we drop our gear, the fish aren’t there. Any fisherman, or fisherman worth their salt, will tell you there’s an impact. They’ve seen it first-hand.”
Last week, the Trump Administration gave the green light to Texas-based Hilcop Energy Company to proceed with seismic airgun testing for oil and gas exploration in the frontier waters of Lower Cook Inlet. Air gun blasting in our sensitive marine fisheries could start as early as September.
From Anchor Point and Homer, to Seldovia and Nanwalek, local residents will soon see the hulking outline of a giant seismic vessel – the 273’ Polarcus Naila – crisscrossing a 200 square mile area in Lower Cook Inlet, blasting airguns at 2000 psi every 2.5-6 seconds, 24 hours a day, for 4-8 weeks. The vessel will be towing 8-10 recording cables (each approximately 1.5 miles long) and a dual array consisting of 14 air guns.
There are at least three reasons this acoustic assault on our marine ecosystem is a horrible idea.
First, Cook Inlet and the Gulf of Alaska are undergoing unparalleled stress, and bombarding our sea life with devastating, round-the-clock noise is just one more insult to pile on the “death by a thousand cuts” phenomena we know harms and kills fish.
Just in the past several weeks, we have heard about the stresses on our natural systems from a glut of pink salmon in the North Pacific, and every Alaskan knows all-too-well we’re on the tail end of a devastating heat wave that’s killed wild salmon and disrupted fisheries across the state. Then of course we have the fact that the Cook Inlet watershed is the most populated and fastest growing area in the state, and billions of gallons of nonpoint source pollution and sewage drain into our waters every day. And in an area where the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale literally teeters on the brink of extinction, Hilcorp continues to dump over 2 billion gallons of toxic waste into our rich fisheries habitat every year.
In other words, there are big red, flashing lights going off, telling us our natural systems are under undue stress. And round-the-clock seismic air gun blasting will be yet another major stressor. While of course industry and government have failed to properly study the impacts of seismic airguns, a growing body of scientific literature shows the loud noise and pounding percussions from seismic blasting can kill zooplankton, the very root of our marine food chains, resulting in unknown disruptions to the entire marine system.
Other scientific research shows the noise and thumping pressure from airguns can harm fish and marine mammals. Because the acoustic assault on our marine systems – from the bottom of the food chain to the top – will endure for weeks on end, and because industry and government refuse to try to understand the true impacts from these activities, we’re essentially playing Russian roulette with the fisheries and marine systems that sustain us, economically, socially and culturally.
Fishermen of Newfoundland and Labrador have had first had experience with seismic air guns, and here’s what one had to say:
So, we just don’t need the added stress of seismic airgun explosions in our Lower Inlet fisheries.
Another reason oil and gas exploration in the frontier waters of Lower Cook Inlet is a bad idea is because the extractive, unsustainable nature of oil and gas development does not fit into the successful economic model in Lower Cook Inlet based on the more-sustainable activities of fishing and tourism.
If Hilcorp discovers commercial quantities of fossil fuels and needs to get them to market, it will literally transform Lower Cook Inlet into an industrial zone, with pipelines and onshore and offshore facilities pocking our landscape, and Outside workers flying in and out to generate profits for a Texas oil and gas company. It’s difficult to understand why we’d upend a proven economic model for one that promises more pollution, more platforms and pipelines, and more socioeconomic disruption, just so a few people can make a few extra bucks.
Finally, and perhaps the most important reason we should not be looking for more oil and gas in Lower Cook Inlet: climate change. This summer, Inletkeeper measured temperatures in the Deshka River – an important King salmon producer in the Susitna River basin – at over 81 degrees F, which is potentially fatal to salmon. While we’ve always anticipated warming salmon streams – and the stresses they bring to cold-water fish – we didn’t expect temperatures this high for 50 years.
So, Alaska is on the front lines of rapid climate change, and if we hope to stave off the worst impacts, we must immediately transition away from fossil fuels, and pursue a new economic paradigm that embraces clean energy and sustainable jobs.
On October 9, the Alaska Supreme Court will hear arguments in a lawsuit brought by Alaska youth, demanding a response to our climate crisis. These kids are fed up with the fact our Governor is a climate change denier, and that our Legislature remains under the thumb of powerful oil and gas lobbyists who insist on profits at any cost.
In other words, we need to draw a line in the water across Lower Cook Inlet, and say: “No more oil and gas. Period.”
On top of all the well-grounded reasons to protect our fisheries and marine systems from the devastating pounding of seismic airguns, it’s also important we not a grant social license to operate in our public waters to a company that has routinely floated the law during its relatively short tenure in Alaska. Hilcorp has amassed an unenviable record of worker safety and environmental violations, and fines and penalties are simply a cost of doing business in Cook Inlet.
And if you want evidence that Hilcorp’s environmental review for its seismic blasting work is a total sham, consider this: in its Environmental Evaluation Document – intended to “to describe the potential adverse environmental effects of the proposed [seismic] activity” – Hilcorp does not cite a single scientific document related to seismic impacts on zooplankton, fish or whales. Not one.
As you lie down tonight to sleep, imagine a large group partying under your window, with a subwoofer blaring the repetitive “thump, thump, thump” that comes from deep, percussive noise. Then imagine that noise persisting 24 hours a day, for weeks and months on end. Then think about what Hilcorp’s acoustic assault will do to our sensitive marine systems, and the marine fisheries that support our families and communities.
It’s time to stand-up for the marine systems that help define who we are as Alaskans. It’s time to say “no” to new oil and gas exploration in the frontier waters of Lower Cook Inlet.
P.S. Click on this link if you want to see what exploding seismic airguns look like underwater (at the beginning they are just “ramping up;” go to 2:40-2:55 to see high pressure explosions). And you can hear the repetitive thumping of seismic airguns underwater here.