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Energy officials try to ease concerns over seismic testing

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In a state with roughly 300 miles of coastline, it’s no surprise that the prospect of offshore seismic oil and gas exploration has North Carolina residents worried about potential harm to fish and marine mammals. The Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management tried to ease those fears Tuesday during a drop-in session at the Hilton Wilmington Riverside that allowed people to talk to regulators and federal experts.

BOEM officials had plenty of information on hand; the sparse  but engaged group of visitors had plenty of questions. Among the latter was Maggie Parish of Wilmington, who says she came because “I care about the dolphins.” Toting a copy of “The Dolphin in the Mirror,” by Diana Reiss, a psychology professor who studied cognitive behaviors in the highly intelligent mammal, she was skeptical of BOEM’s assurances that seismic testing need not be harmful to marine life.

Roger Shew, a geology and geography instructor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, had a more open mind. A 20-year veteran of the oil and gas industry, Shew does not necessarily oppose seismic testing or oil and gas exploration but says it is imperative that regulators do everything possible to minimize the impact of seismic blasts on ocean life.

While he disagrees with opponents who suggest testing will lead to massive deaths or injuries among marine mammals, “you can’t say it’s not going to have any impact.” The key, he said is to take precautions to minimize the negative effects.

Of utmost importance, he said, is reducing “redundancy” by limiting the number and scope of seismic surveys of the ocean floor. State regulators have received at least four applications to conduct seismic tests off the North Carolina coastline, and other companies have expressed interest.

Equipment that reduces the level and amount of sound also has shown promise, but it has not been tested on larger-scale operations such as what is being proposed off the North Carolina coastline, Shew said.

Seismic testing involves blasts of sound that many environmental scientists say can be harmful to sea life if it is done without regard to migration, feeding and reproduction patterns.

Stan Labak, an acoustic specialist with BOEM, agreed that the loud and frequent blasts have the potential to injure or disrupt mammals. But he stressed that his agency’s surveys and other studies suggest that the threat is not as severe as some opponents fear.

While conceding that “mitigation is not 100 percent effective,” Labak said the bureau plans to post observers on ships to detect approaching marine life, as well as putting in place other controls to protect animals. He also noted that while companies may propose testing in the same areas, the agency will work with them to reduce the sort of redundancy cited by Shew.

There is enough doubt among scientists about the safety of such a program that a group of them signed a letter last month asking the Obama administration to halt oil and gas exploration off the Atlantic Coast. Among them was William McClellan, the coordinator of the Marine Mammal Stranding Program at UNCW.

“Our expert assessment is that the [Interior Department’s] premise is not supported by the best available science, the letter read in part. “On the contrary, the magnitude of the proposed seismic activity is likely to have significant, long-lasting and widespread impacts on the reproduction and survival of fish and marine mammal populations in the region, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale, of which only 500 remain.”

email Tricia Vance at [email protected]

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