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Seismic Exploration Raises Specter of Drilling Off Jersey Coast

Despite industry assurances, environmentalists argue seismic exploration is harmful to marine life

The Obama administration is gauging the interest of the energy industry to conduct seismic exploration for oil and natural gas in the Mid- and South Atlantic Ocean, a move that has riled some environmentalists and lawmakers.

They will get a chance to vent their opposition to the move at a hearing in Atlantic City this week, but despite the concerns, there is no chance residents will see any oil or gas rigs off the coast of Jersey anytime soon.

That is because the exploration area runs south of Cape May Point to Florida, and the testing will determine only where oil and gas companies have the best prospects for actually drilling for the fossil fuels. In any cases, leases for the area will not be available until 2017, a decision made by the administration after the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Without a prospect of a lease sale, the likelihood of a company doing seismic work in the Atlantic is pretty limited,’’ said Andy Radford, a senior policy analyst with the American Petroleum Institute.

Nevertheless, environmentalists are alarmed that it could open the door to oil drilling off the coast.

“We don’t think it’s worth the risk,’’ said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, an organization devoted to promoting the conservation of marine life and habitat.

“Seismic exploration is very harmful to marine life,’’ added Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, another environmental organization geared to protecting coastal waters.

With gas prices at the pump approaching $4 per gallon, industry executives argued that it is time to update the most recent seismic exploration of oil and gas potential off the Atlantic coast, the last one having been completed more than two decades ago.

“It’s hard predict what level of interest this will generate,’’ said Jim Benton, executive director of the New Jersey Petroleum Council, referring to the seismic work. “We need new studies because the old ones are more than 20 years old.’’

Those studies found more ample supplies of natural gas than oil, but not enough to be commercially profitable at that time. If that proves true again, it is hard to gauge what will happen, given the large deposits of natural gas found in the Marcellus Shale formations in Pennsylvania and New York. The discovery has pushed natural gas prices to a 10-year low, hardly incentive for companies to invest in expensive offshore gas drilling, even if gains in the technology have lessened the cost.

Seismic exploration involves an air gun aboard a ship firing pressurized air into the water and to the ocean bottom. The ship has sophisticated hydrophones that pick up the sound as it bounces off the various layers of rock, which is then analyzed by computers to gauge what formations might have captured deposits of natural gas and oil in the past, according to Radford.

But Zipf and other environmentalists say the airguns produce such a loud noise that it could impact the ocean for vast areas, even those far from where the exploration is taking place. “It is going to cause significant harm to marine life,’’ she said.

That view was endorsed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which cited the administration’s own estimates that over the next eight years, 138,500 marine animals would be harmed by seismic exploration, including endangered whales.

Radford disputed those concerns. “The sound does travel through the water, but not at levels that impact marine life,’’ he said.

A public hearing on the proposal will be held Friday, beginning at 1 p.m. in the Atlantic City Convention Center.

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