(What marine mammals have to do with gas exploration and how can you help?)
Biking is cool for so many reasons.
Besides all the personal benefits, mainly related to health advantages and financial savings, there is also an immense ecological value to it. Since bikes run on fat (of the person that rides them) instead of oil, it has zero emissions of CO2 to the atmosphere, hence reduces one’s carbon footprint to the planet. In addition, it directly diminishes the road kills and helps save the animals. Interestingly, the choice of being on two wheels than four it does not only protect the four-legged friends of ours but also the no-legged, big brained, wet and mysterious marine friends of ours: the whales! Feel free to find this slightly overstretched but bear with me and I will unfold this connection for you.
Biking works without consuming fossil fuels and for this reason it can affect procedures and the market of oil and gas operations. In contrast to what some people believe, our everyday choices and behaviors can actually change/save the world.
If you care, you can actively contribute to fossil fuel consumption and affect the correspondent impacts. Besides the joy of biking, this is the focus of this post: you save money on fuel and save the earth from having its intestines removed.
Oil makes the world go round
It has been estimated that about 130 billion tons of crude oil have been extracted from the ground since commercial drilling began (1870). According to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, there are still 1.3 trillion barrels (1 barrel~160 liters) of oil reserve left in the world’s major fields (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iran) which at present rates of consumption should last about 40 years. Humanity has managed to use in just about 150 years a resource that took probably up to millions of years to form! About half of this amount has been consumed in the last 25 years.
Wait a minute, how old are you. Hmmm, did you do it?
Needless to say that the oil deposits are not distributed homogeneously around the world. Also remember that are not consumed equally by everyone either. The world’s 2/3 of the remaining oil deposits are, as you correctly guessed, in the Middle East. The United States has only 4% of the world reserves but consumes over 25% of the oil consumed worldwide and ends up importing more than half of its supplies.
At this point exactly, I am being antsy for political comments and discussion, but since this is not the appropriate platform, I will limit myself to let you think about the sacrifices that a person (usually without realizing) or a government (always consciously but trying to mask it) are willing to make to get access to the oily wells.
#1 (and the only one discussed here) sacrifice: the ecosystem
The carbon emissions by burning petroleum is contributing to the greenhouse effect that affects our climate that in turn has gone bonkers. Intense and extreme weather conditions seem to occur and new historic records of high or low temperatures are being broken almost every year in many parts of the world, including Alaska and the East Coast of United States correspondingly.
Our greed for black gold has taken the geoscientists and the oil companies to the oceans. In the USA, Alaska has been the target for oil exploration, where a vicious circle is taking place. Since the industrialization and the burning potato of climate change occurred, the ice is melting with higher rates, the glaciers’ volume decreases, and land or part of the ocean that before were inaccessible are now exposed. What an opportunity has risen! We can now drill for more oil to burn, emit more CO2 and enhance the rapid ice melting.
Do we want to ride this carousel?
In addition to the oil industry horror that took place in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico before, the most current USA oil hunt has now taken oil companies to the Atlantic. I will explain more about this in a bit.
It is clear that the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska (1989) and the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico (2010) were accidents during the extraction and the transportation of the oil. The impacts were obvious to everyone with dramatic images of black seas, tarred beaches, sea birds covered in thick oil, and dead baby dolphins stranded on the coasts that blackened everyone’s heart.
Before even the pumping of oil from the Earth’s guts begins, other risks for the environment are underlying that are not obvious to everyone and are hard to identify.
The oil is buried deep below the ground and the ocean floor. How do you find something so well hidden? The geoscientists’ secret weapon is called airgun and it is exactly what its name says: a gun that shoots air.
Are the guns of air innocent as they sound?
The seismic airguns used for oil and gas exploration are NOT the same as the ones that we add soap and water and make bubbles filled with air, wouldn’t that be nice? Instead, they blast compressed air, waves of energy, in to the ocean floor to use the echo and take an image of what it is beneath it. Each layer within the Earth reflects a portion of the wave’s energy back and allows the rest to refract through. These reflected energy waves are recorded and their differences in arriving time can tell us about the different materials in the ground where the sound has different speed. The general principle is based on the technique of echolocation that bats, dolphins and sperm whales use. They send waves of sound that bounce off objects, go back to their ears and give an acoustic picture that can be as high definition and detailed as an x-ray.
For the seismic exploration as is called, hydrophones are used as the ears that listen and record the echo of the sound. Similar hydrophones to what I use to listen and record the voices of the whales.
Boats tow large arrays of airguns that shoot energy waves strong enough to penetrate the sea bottom and travel miles into it. These airguns can be so loud that resemble dynamite explosions, are repeated about every 10 seconds for whole days and often periods of months.
Now imagine yourself living in a town that is bombed all day every day for months.
A deaf whale is a dead whale
The oceans are “worlds of sound” and marine mammals count on sound and their acoustic as well as vocal abilities to communicate with each other, find mates, locate food and navigate. Can you imagine the impact of these explosions to their lives?
Depending on their proximity to the operating airguns, whales can be physically harmed, deafened, or can alter their behavior, leave the area and move miles away to avoid the noise or temporarily lose their ability to hear. This intense noise can mask acoustic signals that come from other animals and hence interfere with adult breeding calls, or degrade anti-predator responses. Mothers and calves use sound to communicate underwater hence such loud noise can increase the risk of calves being separated from their mothers with lethal effects. The sounds from the airguns are loud enough to disrupt activities of blue and other endangered marine mammal species essential to foraging and reproduction over vast ocean areas. Over time, airgun noise can cause chronic behavioral and physiological stress, just like intense noise pollution can cause to people, that can suppress reproduction and increase mortality and morbidity. Not good.
Make a change
Currently, there has been a reaction to the USA federal government for having released a map with the areas where oil companies want to look (hear) for oil. Regulations for surveying in the Atlantic were finalized last summer, while this January a proposed plan for offshore drilling was released. It is a humongous area on the East coast and includes the habitat for a variety of marine mammals, including the 500 remaining critically endangered Northern Right Whales. Thanks Obama!
Even if seismic can mask the voices of whales they cannot shut down our voices.
Do you want to help?
You can be part of the social media campaign designed at getting out the facts about seismic exploration and urge the Obama administration to reverse the decision to allow seismic surveys for oil and gas in the Atlantic.
For more info you can read here the letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management expressing concern over the introduction of seismic oil and gas exploration along the U.S. mid-Atlantic and south Atlantic coasts (sent on 3/5/2015.) and here the letter to President Obama urging him to wait on new science before permitting the use of seismic airguns in the Atlantic Ocean (sent on 2/20/2014.)
Here is what you could do to be part of this:
- Print out the sign and fill in your name and affiliation/position.
- Take a picture of yourself holding the sign. It reads:
“Seismic airgun exploration for oil and gas puts marine life at risk of serious harm.”
Send the photo to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Should be something like this:
It is not just USA being thirsty for oil though. I am recently working on the Environmental Baseline Study for two locations in the Ionian Sea in Greece that got approved for oil exploration and drilling. Ionian Sea is a significant habitat for eight marine mammal species with critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable species among them. The sperm whale, monk seal, common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and beaked whales are intensively using this area and are particularly sensitive to noise. My responsibility at this point is to make sure that the current presence of these species is carefully recorded before the exploration and operations start so that potential impacts can be evaluated after that.
The same time I have been working on the Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment for the construction of offshore wind farm in 11 locations in Greece. Alternative and renewable energy resources are certainly the direction we should globally be looking towards. However, it is interesting to know that potential negative impacts can also occur to marine organisms during their construction and operation. For this reason, the mitigation measures are of great importance and I expect them to be taken into account.
One more reason that we love biking is that it is quite as a squirrel. Imagine how much more peaceful this world would be with more bikes and less cars. This paradise exists in the micro-cosmos of OSU campus. We are lucky people the Corvallis people. If it can happen here, it can happen everywhere.
Your turn Athens.