Energy & Environment

Seismic blasting for oil endangers marine life: report

New review adds scientific weight to the fight against seismic testing in Canada’s Arctic

A new scientific report released this morning says that the practice of seismic blasting, used to explore for oil underwater, could seriously injure narwhals, whales and other marine life.

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This finding is sure to have implications in Canada, where the Inuit community of Clyde River has gone to court to prevent seismic blasting up and down the length of Baffin Island in the Davis Strait. Last week the Federal Court of Appeal denied a request for judicial review of the National Energy Board’s decision to allow the tests, but Mayor Jerry Natanine vowed to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

Today’s report will bolster the community’s case that testing could harm marine animals they depend upon for food.

Editors' note: The following video was released by Greenpeace to coincide with the release of its report.

Prepared for Greenpeace Nordic by Marine Conservation Research, the report urges “extreme caution” in using seismic airguns — which emit 259 decibels — and a commitment to further research and avoidance of “sensitive areas” such as the High Arctic.

The report also concludes that seismic surveys in Baffin Bay, the main habitat for narwhal, must not occur during the animal’s migration periods.

“It is clear that noise from seismic activity has an impact on whales as it can damage their hearing, ability to communicate and also displace animals, affecting diving behavior, feeding and migration patterns,” said report author Dr. Oliver Boisseau, senior research scientist at Marine Conservation Research in a release. “There are increasing indications that this could cause serious injury, and may also disrupt reproductive success and increase the risk of strandings and ice entrapments.”

Ricochet reached Boisseau at his office in Essex, England on Monday morning. He says the report raises a number of concerns.

“The bottom line is that we really don't have enough information on how this noise will affect the species in the area. There are three marine mammal species of particular concern up in the High Arctic. They are ice-obligate species, which need to be near the ice edge for most of their lives. They don't have the option to flee the area if there is something that is disturbing them.”

“We would counsel that a lot more research is required. We need to get a handle on how these species react to noise, and the potential effect on these animals, before we start to introduce wholesale seismic surveying into a fairly pristine acoustic environment.”

Concern in Nunavut

“The same seismic companies that are searching for oil in North East Greenland right now could be blasting air cannons in Baffin Bay next summer,” said Mayor Natanine in a release. “Inuit rely on healthy marine life for food and for our local economy. If the seismic companies start blasting in our waters, I’m worried it could decimate our way of life.”

The Norwegian company TGS-NOPEC, which is currently using seismic blasting off the east coast of Greenland to map potential oil reserves below the seafloor, is also part of the consortium planning to conduct tests in Nunavut.

“One would hope for a limit on the greed of oil companies,” Natanine continued. “This new study shows how destructive seismic blasting can be for whales yet they continue with their pursuit for oil with no regard for environmental impacts and Inuit rights.”

Tuesday’s judgement from Court of Appeal Justice Eleanor Dawson found that “the consultation process does not give aboriginal groups a veto on what can be done with their land pending final proof of their claim. Perfect satisfaction is not required.”

Last year Lucy Tulugarjuk, a Nunavut throat singer, refused to perform for Conservative MP Leona Aglukkaq, citing her “lack of leadership” on the issue of seismic testing. An open letter to the MP asking for answers about the testing, which she has yet to respond to, has been circulating widely and the debate is sure to be central to the election campaign in the geographically vast riding.

According to Diego Creimer with Greenpeace’s Arctic campaign, if Clyde River’s appeal is accepted it would be the first case from Nunavut heard by the Supreme Court since the territory’s creation in 1999.

The National Energy Board has been accused of being a “captured regulator,” and in the current election campaign both Liberals and NDP have criticized the Harper government for stripping the body of credibility, committing to a significant overhaul of the environmental review process if they are elected.

The Inuit of Clyde River and their supporters are hoping that this report will bolster not only their court case, but also their case against seismic blasting in the court of public opinion.

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