Oil Exploration Threatens New England Waters and Economy

This is the second in a three-part series on the recent oil-related developments in Canada – and what they mean for New England. You can read the first blog, introducing the problem with Nova Scotia’s new exploration leases and the threats they pose to endangered whales here. The final blog will cover the approval of major increases in oil tanker traffic through the Bay of Fundy and along the coast of the Atlantic.    

Oil exploration. Pipelines. Tar sands. Oil tankers. Spills. These should be words of our past, not our future.

 

Yet at a time when climate change is one of the most – if not the most – pressing issue facing modern society, some recent developments involving these terms have me scratching my head. First, our Canadian neighbors just approved new oil exploration leases to the south of Nova Scotia that come disturbingly close to Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine, areas known to be sensitive to environmental shocks.

And now, TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline proposal, submitted last week, would more than double the number of oil tankers carrying tar sands oil – from 115 to more than 280 each year – through the Bay of Fundy and down New England’s coast.

Double the tankers means double the risk for a catastrophic accident or oil spill. Just one major spill could devastate our most precious underwater wild places, while destroying the livelihoods of fishermen and coastal communities that depend on a healthy ocean to survive.

Climate change compels us to move away from fossil fuels, yet oil companies press on searching every nook and cranny of the planet to find it, not minding the disturbances and threats they’re posing to vulnerable ecosystems, endangered species, and local economies.

Drilling Deja-vu

This isn’t the first time oil or gas exploration has threatened the Gulf of Maine. Since the 1970s, energy companies have clamored for approval to drill for oil and gas deposits along the Atlantic coastline, including the U.S.-controlled portion of Georges Bank and along the coast of Canada.

In 1978, Conservation Law Foundation partnered with fishermen and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to block oil exploration on Georges Bank – winning the first successful injunction against offshore drilling in the United States. CLF argued that oil leasing was inconsistent with the then two-year-old federal fisheries law (now called the Magnuson-Stevens Act) because the risks were potentially catastrophic to the marine wildlife the region’s fishermen depend on to make a living.

Ultimately, in the early 1980s, an exploratory dig was approved but turned up no oil in Georges Bank. Led by New England’s Congressional delegation, CLF persuaded Congress to pass a funding moratorium on all future Georges Bank drilling. Canadian fishermen and activists soon followed suit, citing the U.S.’s example to fight off similar drilling efforts on their side of Georges Bank. A Canadian drilling moratorium on Georges Bank was established in 1988, and now extends to 2022.

In 2008, the U.S. moratorium was lifted and exploration off our shores is now only blocked by soft, interim no-drill agreements. Meanwhile, with our northern neighbor more aggressively pursuing offshore oil and gas, Canadian leases in the North Atlantic Ocean have been steadily marching south, getting closer and closer to Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine.

Too Close for Comfort

To make matters worse, Canada has permitted the oil companies drilling nearby – such as the one at Shelburne Basin, just 75 miles east of Georges Bank – to forego keeping emergency equipment close at hand. This allows them almost two weeks to cap an oil well blowout should an accident occur, effectively sanctioning the catastrophic damage a blowout would cause. In comparison, in U.S. waters surrounding Alaska, oil companies have a maximum of 24 hours to put emergency caps on drilling blow-outs.

The risk to New England from the explorations in Shelburne Basin and other areas east of Georges Bank? Toxins could get caught up in the pronounced southwest-flowing Maine Coastal Current that’s instrumental in lobster larvae distribution throughout coastal Maine – dealing a potentially devastating blow to Maine’s most important fishery.

And the dispersants used in the cleanup of a spill can be even more harmful to sea life than the oil itself. Toxic pollutants from the Canadian sites east of Georges Bank could easily get picked up by the upwelling currents that account for the legendary productivity of the Georges Bank system – transforming those upwelling currents from being life-giving to life-taking.

The increased risks in the U.S. from Canadian exploratory drilling may seem remote but they are, nonetheless, real and potentially catastrophic. Industry claims of safety are belied by real, recent disasters like the massive Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

These encroaching Canadian leases also create a troubling precedent. Once oil or gas drilling begins in this area of the North Atlantic – even if it is technically across the border – the arguments to maintain “no-drill” agreements in the U.S. are weakened. And although there is little industry interest in Georges Bank for oil, the industrial appetite for developing natural gas wells so close to the U.S. northeast is likely growing – and who knows what that future might hold.

The Big Picture for New England

The threat from offshore oil development isn’t just to marine wildlife, but also to our New England way of life: fishing, surfing, whale watching, beach combing (and the millions of tourist dollars that go along with them) – so much of our economy depends on a healthy ocean, clean beaches, and abundant marine wildlife.

From start to finish – preliminary seismic testing, drilling, oil spills, chemicals used in cleanup, and transport – the marine oil and gas exploration and drilling process is risky, harmful, and unnecessary. Further environmental review will be required in Canada before production drilling could start. The U.S. State Department needs to protest any further activities as forcefully as possible.

New England is already at risk from climate change, above and below the water. Sea level rise threatens coastal communities. Rapidly warming waters cause species to move away in search of colder temperatures, potentially eliminating fisheries that have sustained regional economies for generations. Increasing ocean acidity jeopardizes the two most significant fisheries in New England: lobsters and sea scallops.

The last thing we need are more man-made threats to our ocean and all that it represents for us as New Englanders.

 

Happy New Year from New England Ocean Odyssey!

Happy New Year, New England ocean lovers! Here are some of New England Ocean Odyssey’s highlights from 2015:

We featured some special species from areas rarely seen with the human eye:

Atlantic Treasures of the Deep

We brought you news about the threats facing our ocean’s wildlife – from overfishing and poor fishery management, to climate change, to oil exploration.

Exploring for Oil Off Nova Scotia Threatens Ocean Wildlife and Our Coastal Economy

The Climate Change Connection: The Warming Gulf of Maine Needs Protected Areas

Fishery Council Vote: Major Losses Overshadow Small Victories

We featured sea creatures each week with our summer Fish Friday series.

Fish Friday Finale

And we went back for another dive at Cashes Ledge.

Beyond the data: Captivating moments at Cashes Ledge

Dive in on Cashes Ledge 2.0

In the fall, we ramped up our efforts to permanently protect Cashes Ledge and the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts.

Save the Whales: Create marine protected areas

Governor Baker: The People Have Spoken, and They Want a Marine National Monument

We learned that climate change is exacerbating an already poor outlook for Atlantic cod in New England.

Baked Cod: The Path Forward in an Era of Climate Change

Will Atlantic Cod Exist in 2036?

In 2016, we’ll keep fighting for a healthy ocean in New England, to protect our wildlife and our coastal communities. Thank you for your support!

Exploring for Oil Off Nova Scotia Threatens Ocean Wildlife and Our Coastal Economy

In New England, witnessing a whale breach the ocean’s surface is an awe-inspiring experience reminding us of the complex and magnificent undersea metropolis that’s just below the surface. Whales ­– humpback, minke, North Atlantic right whales, and more – are iconic New England marine life, bringing people in droves each year to experience the sight of these majestic creatures, and contributing significantly to New England’s coastal economies.

Unfortunately, recent developments by our neighbors to the north put whales and the region’s economy at risk. Earlier this month, Nova Scotia’s government granted final approval to a Norwegian energy company, Statoil, to begin offshore oil exploration just east of Georges Bank, off the coast of the province’s Scotian Shelf. This exploratory lease area is in addition to two others, owned by Shell Canada and BP Canada, which have permission to begin the process of testing for oil.

While Canada has a moratorium on oil exploration in Georges Bank, similar to our own, the country has otherwise aggressively pursued offshore oil and gas development in the Atlantic. These new leases near Georges Bank are too close for comfort.

The Gulf of Maine, and Georges Bank especially, is an ecologically sensitive and biologically-rich area, and new oil exploration poses significant and immediate threats to the region’s ecosystems, particularly to marine mammals such as the North Atlantic right whale.

Seismic testing

When drilling occurs, the risks are massive – the worst of which is an oil spill. But even before any drilling occurs, irreversible damage can occur. The first step a company takes in testing for oil is to conduct seismic testing, a process that uses air gun blasts to scan areas for mineral deposits. These blasts must be loud enough to reach the ocean floor, where sensors record and send the data back up to the surface.

During seismic testing, companies run these blasts repeatedly, often 10 seconds apart, 24 hours a day, for many days in a row.

If you can imagine being exposed again and again to an extremely loud, unknown noise for weeks at a time, I think you can understand why this is a problem. As complex creatures who rely on sound waves to communicate, whales are especially at risk. The noise is loud enough to mask whale calls over thousands of miles, causing confusion that could lead to habitat abandonment, putting them at risk for displacement. The constant noise can also cause temporary or permanent hearing loss, disruptions to normal feeding and mating habits, and chronic health problems from increased stress levels – all of which can have a major impact on the species’ ability to rebound.

All marine life is important to healthy ocean ecosystems in the Gulf of Maine, but the endangered North Atlantic right whale would be the most vulnerable to seismic testing. Only around 500 whales are alive today, putting them at dire risk of extinction. Threatening even one of these whales threatens the entire species at a time when every whale counts.

A Safe Haven

With climate change and overfishing already putting pressure on our ocean habitats, providing a safe haven for North Atlantic right whales – and all of the marine creatures that depend on a healthy ocean – is more important than ever before.

Conservation Law Foundation has long fought to protect our ocean wildlife – including taking fisheries managers to task for failing to protected some of New England’s most iconic groundfish species from near extinction. Last year, we worked to ensure protections for North Atlantic right whales when Deepwater Wind sought to create the first offshore wind farm in the Rhode Island Sound. Working with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Wildlife Federation, we successfully came to an agreement with the company to limit pre-construction activities for the turbines during seasons when right whales migrate through the area.

Risks posed from oil exploration are real and happening now, we cannot sit passively by while oil interests threaten our coastal economies and endangered species. Unfortunately, the United States cannot stop Canadian oil exploration in nearby waters. But we can send a strong signal to our northern neighbor by permanently protecting critical ocean areas that can serve as a safe haven for threatened species.

Designating the Cashes Ledge Area and the New England Canyons and Seamounts as the Atlantic’s first Marine National Monument would send a strong message that these areas are important national and international interests worth protecting.