Atlantic Drilling on Hold, but Seismic Blast Testing to Proceed

Just because President Obama put a five-year kibosh on oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic doesn’t mean that the ocean is now safe for whales and other marine life. Far from it.

Oil companies will still be free to blast away with underwater sonic cannons, prospecting for every last barrel of goo hiding beneath the ocean floor. They will be free to damage and destroy marine life in the process. They’ll be free to hasten the extinctions already underway due to man-made climate change.

Call it pre-emptive plunder. The thinking behind the White House giving approval to exploration without immediate extraction is that once the current global oil glut depletes itself, and higher prices make it worth the market god’s while, the multinationals will have their mother lodes all mapped out for them. They’re simply being proactive.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is currently considering eight separate applications for seismic blast testing for oil and gas in the Atlantic. To visualize what this “mapping” will do to wildlife, try to imagine undergoing a diagnostic ultrasound in the middle of a war zone. Imagine that submitting yourself to such a test would not only render you permanently deaf, it would also very likely drive you insane. Imagine that the sound would be so loud that you would lose all sense of direction and not even be able to find your way home from the clinic. Imagine if you had your children with you, and the sonic blast had the effect of making you forget that you even had children.

That is what oil company sonic blasting will do to whales, sea turtles and other sentient beings. The sound can travel underwater for more than 2,000 miles to do its damage. According to marine conservation scientist Douglas Nowacek, the sound blasts can reach 260 decibels and continue for weeks or months on end.

“Each survey would discharge its airguns approximately every 10 or 12 seconds, and would operate 24 hours per day,” he told Congress last year. “If these permits are granted, ocean animals located in that wide area of the Atlantic Ocean would be exposed to noise levels that are likely to cause impacts and to disrupt essential behavior patterns.”

To suggest that the Obama administration’s approval for this testing is tantamount to approving torture is actually quite an understatement.

As Oceana’s Ingrid Biedron points out, “Since the Atlantic has been removed from drilling for the next five years, there’s no immediate need for companies to prospect for oil and gas in this way. We’d encourage them, and the government, to wait until there is safer technology available before going ahead with this.”

Asking predatory capitalists to wait for anything is asking way too much, of course. That their quest for more oil and more profits has already done irreparable damage to all the species inhabiting our precious planet is simply what neoliberal economists label an “externality,” and what the masters of war label collateral damage.

And Obama’s reasons for placing a five-year moratorium on Atlantic drilling actually have little to do with protecting the environment. His administration simultaneously approved ten new leasing sites in the Gulf of Mexico and another three off the Arctic coast. The decisions to halt drilling in the Arctic were made by the oil companies themselves — the cost-benefit analyses simply did not work out in their favor.

And wasn’t only environmentalists and tourism concerns that put pressure on the president to halt Atlantic drilling. It was the United States military brass. Underwater drilling by oil companies would damage the Pentagon’s ability to play their war games on the Atlantic high seas and also interfere with the training exercises and other testing that theyconduct on the Eastern coastline.

So when Big Oil is up against Big Forever War, the bigger, faster death obviously wins. But Big Oil dare not complain too much, seeing as how the Pentagon uses more of its polluting product than all other government agencies combined. As a matter of fact, the American military contributes more to global warming than any other institution on the planet. And miracle of miracles: the Pentagon enjoys blanket exemption from all international climate change agreements. So, as long as the wars continue, so will the current oil glut diminish, so will the oil companies’ profits ooze back up in a giant blob of cash.

As Herbert Melville observed in his own anti-capitalist whale of a tale (Moby Dick): “The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvelous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!”