Energy & Environment

Airgun Testing For Oil Reserves is a Controversial Environmental Issue

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The global community is quickly working its way through the natural resources available to us. As we seek new ways to access oil and gas, one of the newest possible frontiers is the American Atlantic Coast. The U.S. has toyed with using a supposedly minimally invasive tactic to test for oil and gas deep in the Atlantic Ocean called airgun testing. Read on to find out what airgun testing is, what affect it has on the environment, and what its prospects are moving forward.

What is Airgun Testing?

Airgun testing is essentially a way to test for oil and gas reserves. The seismic airguns attach onto ships, and then blast loud, strong bursts of air onto the ocean floor. How the air responds can tell the airgun operator whether or not there may be oil or gas reserves below the surface. Watch the video below for a simple, technical explanation of how airgun testing works.

The History of Airgun Testing in the United States

On February 27, an Environmental Impact Statement was released by the Interior Department that allows the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to begin issuing permits for seismic testing off the Atlantic Coast for oil and gas exploration. Although the ocean floor was tested for oil reserves in the 1970s and 80s, many experts feel those reports used outdated technology and gave an inaccurate representation of the oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic.

Some experts say that oil reserves could be found off the Atlantic coast that would be similar to those known to be in the Gulf of Mexico and could dramatically boost the American economy. Environmental groups, however, strongly oppose oil exploration using this method, as it is known to kill small fish and eggs in close vicinity to the air blasts. The long-term effects on the behavior of larger aquatic animals such as dolphins and whales is unknown. The proposed area for seismic exploration spans several miles off the coast and stretches from Delaware to Florida, and though the area in question is banned from any oil exploration activity until 2017, the next president could overturn that rule.

What are the arguments in favor of airgun testing?

Advocates of oil exploration off the Atlantic Coast using airgun seismic testing argue that the permits issued by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) place restrictions that will make airgun testing safe for marine wildlife. The Environmental Impact Statement recommends three restrictions to ensure that these tests are conducted in a safe, environmentally conscious manner:

  1. Prohibit survey activity on the migratory routes of the endangered Right Whale. A path roughly 20 miles wide would be created in the middle of the proposed area in which exploration could not be conducted from November through April — the whale migration season — creating a safe corridor for the whales.
  2. Prohibit more than one survey from being conducted at any given time.
  3. Prior to any survey activity, exploration vehicles would be required to use passive acoustic monitoring systems to identify wildlife in the exploration area; if any wildlife are found that would be affected by the airgun, the survey area for that day would be shifted to a different location.

Advocates feel that these provisions, written into any permits issued by the BOEM, would safeguard against potential negative effects of airgun testing.

Advocates also point to the economic benefits of updated oil exploration off the Atlantic Coast. Some experts claim that the Atlantic coast could hold the equivalent of seven years of oil generated in the Gulf of Mexico, enough to boost the American economy and strengthen the United States’ energy security. The American Petroleum Institute has estimated that the oil to be found there could generate nearly 280,000 jobs, $195 billion in private revenue, and $51 billion in government revenue.These estimates, of course, are dependent upon the discovery of more oil than the current 3.3 billion barrels estimated to be there. Additionally, supporters argue that airgun testing can also be used for tasks such as discovering sand deposits for beach recovery and as scouting for possible locations of off-shore wind turbines.

What are the Arguments Against Airgun Testing?

Opponents argue that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has been too hasty in its approval for permits without proper studies of the long-term effects of airgun testing on marine wildlife. It is known that the high pressure airgun blasts can injure or kill small fish and their eggs, but little is known about the long-term effects on marine animals such as behavioral disruption, migration, and mating patterns. The area up for seismic testing puts 34 species of whales and dolphins and several species of turtles at risk. Because sound travels faster in water, aquatic wildlife miles away from the seismic testing could be affected, although the effects of airgun testing are still being studied. Environmental group Oceana argues that the November through April ban on seismic testing will not save the whales and that the BOEM did little to use current acoustic data on whale activity or search for alternatives methods to airgun testing.

Airgun testing in the Atlantic has also sparked backlash because it could potentially harm tourism and fishing industries in coastal areas, in addition to the negative effects of offshore oil production that are sure to result from oil exploration. Opponents point to the results of airgun testing off the coast of Southwestern Africa, which severely disrupted tuna migration patterns, and thus damaged the tuna industry that normally thrives in that area.

Some experts argue that while 280,000 jobs in oil exploration and production could be created, some 730,000 jobs in the fishing and tourism industries would be lost if oil exploration were to disrupt aquatic wildlife. Additionally, opponents argue that oil exploration will inevitably progress to oil production, which could have disastrous effects upon the Atlantic coast. The effects are still felt today of the 2006 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Exxon-Valdez oil spill near Alaska in 1989. The same type of oil spill could potentially occur off the Atlantic coast if drilling were permitted there, which runs the risk of affecting a greater population than either of the previous spills. Oil drilling itself could pose a myriad of negative effects upon marine wildlife, and airgun testing could be blamed for paving the way to large-scale offshore oil drilling near the Atlantic coast.



Bureau of Ocean Energy Management: Atlantic Geological and Geophysical Activities Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement


Bloomberg: Review Clears Path For Seismic Tests of U.S. Atlantic Oil

International Business Times: Obama Administration Releases Environmental Study to Set Rules For Oil and Gas Exploration in Atlantic Ocean

Examiner: Use of Air Guns Being Considered For U.S. Oil and Gas Exploration

Greenville Online: Rules Set For Oil Testing in Atlantic Ocean

Star News Online: McCrory Adds Voice to Coastal Governors Who Want Offshore Drilling

Climate Progress: ‘Airgun’ Drilling in the Atlantic Wouldn’t Find Much Oil, But Could Harm Wildlife

National Geographic: Atlantic Seismic Tests For Oil: Marine Animals At Risk?

EcoWatch: U.S. to Allow Seismic Airgun Testing For Offshore Drilling Exploration, Will Threaten Marine Life

Oceana: Seismic Airguns: An Ocean Threat

The New York Times: U.S. Moves Toward Atlantic Oil Exploration, Stirring Debate Over Sea Life

McClatchy DC: Interior Department Favors Controversial Seismic Tests For Atlantic Ocean Oil

Tech Times: Atlantic Oil Drilling Using Seismic Airgun May Wipe Out Endangered Right Whales

Washington Post: U.S. Rules Would Allow ‘Seismic Air Guns’ in Search For Offshore Oil, Gas

TIME: To Drill or Not to Drill: The Debate Over Offshore Testing and Drilling in the Atlantic

Joseph Palmisano
Joseph Palmisano is a graduate of The College of New Jersey with a degree in History and Education. He has a background in historical preservation, public education, freelance writing, and business. While currently employed as an insurance underwriter, he maintains an interest in environmental and educational reform. Contact Joseph at



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