A national campaign against offshore seismic surveys by energy companies has spawned a renewed legal brawl between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, the state’s own Rutgers University, fishermen and environmental groups.
The 236'x56'x19'7" research vessel Marcus G. Langseth is at sea now, towing its acoustic air gun array on a track roughly 30 miles long east of Barnegat Light, N.J. Scientists with Rutgers and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Institute of Columbia University in New York want the state-of-the-art, 3-D profiling of deep seafloor sediments to better understand ancient changes in sea level.
That’s critical to understanding how sea level rise may happen in the coming decades with climate changes, said Greg Mountain, a Rutgers professor leading the project. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the pace of sea level rise along the mid-Atlantic states is much on the minds of urban planners.
But the project ran afoul of a national campaign by environmental groups to protest the use of seismic air guns at sea, as part of their broader strategy opposing new offshore oil and gas drilling. New Jersey state officials are siding with those critics, and on Friday they filed a complaint in U.S. District Court against the National Science Foundation, which is backing the project, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which issued permits for it.
“The full extent of impacts from seismic testing are still being learned,” the complaint stated, “but what is known is the impacts will be felt far outside of the study area and are likely to include reduced catch rates for New Jersey's commercial and recreational fishing industries, and harassment of marine mammals.”
According to court documents, the Langseth is towing four Bolt 1500 LL and Bolt 1900 LLX air guns, ranging in size from 40 to 220 cu. in., with a firing pressure of 1,950 psi for a source level of 246 to 253 dB.
A Kongsberg EM 122 multibeam echo sounder runs during the air gun operations to simultaneously map the ocean floor, with a source level of 242 dB. A sub-bottom profiler and acoustic Doppler current profiler sound at over 200 dB.
Project supporters say critics are overstating the volume of sound and its potential impact.
“Although the [Langseth] is capable of conducting high energy seismic surveys using up to 36 air guns with a discharge volume of 6,600 cubic inches, the proposed seismic survey would only use a small towed subarray of four air guns with a total discharge volume of (around) 700 cubic inches, which is the smaller powered of two source levels planned and used during the 2014 survey,” according an environmental assessment prepared for the National Science Foundation.
“Injurious impacts to marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds have not been proven to occur near air gun arrays, and are not likely to be caused by the other types of sound sources proposed to be used,” the assessment said. However, as part of its NOAA permits the Langseth crew must include designated observers watching for marine mammals and suspend operations when animals are nearby.
Project opponents are hitting on those very permits — and NOAA’s estimates of potentially affected animal populations — as evidence the survey should be stopped.
“If permitted, the Rutgers University study can cause any act of pursuit, torment or annoyance to 18,457 marine mammals, including over 12,500 bottlenose dolphins and their infant calves,” the New Jersey-based group Clean Ocean Action said in its campaign literature.
Nationally, the campaign by bigger environmental groups like Oceana is having an effect on the prospects for seismic surveys of offshore federal energy leases. Enough political pressure was brought to bear in South Carolina from coastal communities that state regulators are asking the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to impose time and area closures on air gun use.
The Langseth was originally poised to complete its survey in 2014 — after New Jersey tried and failed to block the study in the federal courts. But mechanical problems forced the ship back to New York, and a one-year delay.