By Wallace Mckelvey
New Jersey marine life, tourism and the industries that rely on both are imperiled by the federal approval Friday of seismic testing along a large swath of the U.S. Atlantic coast, a contingent of advocates and officials say.
The decision, which would allow offshore oil exploration from Delaware to Florida, follows an intense legal battle over a similar project 15 miles off Long Beach Island. An attempt to block the latter project was rejected earlier this week by a federal district court judge.
"It's dumb, it's wrong, it's stupid and, at this point, it becomes outrageous," said U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, who plans to
pursue any option to oppose oil and gas exploration.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management's decision could lead to the same kind of catastrophe the Gulf of Mexico saw in 2010, calling it "another handout to Big Oil."
While the Long Beach Island project, led by a Rutgers University professor, has no stated ties to the oil and gas industries, it utilizes the same technology allowed in Friday's decision. In both, air guns are towed behind research vessels and emit strong pulses of sound. The resulting data collected from hydrophones are used to create a 3-D image of what lies beneath the sea floor.
Friday's decision opens the outer continental shelf between Delaware and Florida to exploration by energy companies in advance of possible drilling leases in 2018, when congressional limits are set to expire. Seismic testing is already being used in oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and off Alaska.
"The bureau's decision reflects a carefully analyzed and balanced approach that will allow us to increase our understanding of potential offshore resources while protecting the human, marine, and coastal environments," acting BOEM Director Walter Cruickshank said in a written statement.
Bureau estimates report that 4.72 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 37.51 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas lie beneath federal waters from Florida to Maine. Meanwhile, an environmental impact study commissioned by the bureau found that more than 138,000 sea creatures could be harmed.
In all, more than 120,000 comments were sent to the government in the lead-up to Friday's decision.
"I guess you can't fight City Hall," said Robert Schoelkopf, executive director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine. "They'll do in the whole East Coast if they keep doing this."
Schoelkopf said the same concerns he and others had about seismic testing off Long Beach Island apply to this new decision, but the scope and potential impacts are much larger.
"Depending on how they're scheduling it ... it would adversely affect all the marine life in that area," he said.
The intense soundwaves could physically harm marine life and disrupt migratory patterns, Schoelkopf said, the effects of which would hurt the state's large commercial fishing and recreational boating industries. Dolphins, whales and many species of fish all migrate through the area targeted for testing, he said.
Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, said New Jersey was likely excluded from Friday's decision because of its long history of bipartisan opposition to oil and gas exploration. But that fact won't protect it from possible impacts of testing to the south, she said.
"Sound travels in the ocean," she said. "The sound waves will pulse into New Jersey water, particularly more strongly in South Jersey and dissipate more toward the north."
Then there's the danger posed by oil and gas drilling the testing may bring to the Atlantic Ocean.
"Testing is the gateway drug," Zipf said. "Wherever it happens to the south of us, not only will it be threatening that area of the ocean but, because of the Gulf Stream, it'll be endangering the New Jersey and Long Island coasts."
Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the state will monitor the proposed testing from Delaware to Florida.
"The governor has clearly stated his opposition to drilling off the coast of New Jersey," he said.
LoBiondo said New Jersey has already seen what oil can do. In 2005, a tanker leaked an estimated 265,000 gallons of crude oil into the Delaware River, prompting a public outcry and legislative action.
"You can only imagine the catastrophe and disaster it would be if there was even a minor spill on our beaches," he said.