The House of Representatives is expected to consider a series of three bills this week that would block oil and gas drilling off the coastline of most of the United States. Areas protected by these bills include the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, and the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Aaron Rice is the principal ecologist with Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program at the Lab of Ornithology. He says that banning drilling off the American coastline would have benefits for marine life, including endangered whale species.
“Oil and gas exploration and extraction introduce a number of different impacts to marine ecosystems, from the sounds generated by seismic air guns to physical modification of the seafloor associated with drilling operations. In the context of air gun surveys alone, these loud sounds travel great distances in the ocean, and overlap in the frequency range that many species of whales and fishes use for communication. Prohibition of further oil and gas operations in these areas prevent the introduction of yet another stressor in an already noisy ocean.
“It’s also likely that the value of ecosystem services (e.g., fishing, tourism, alternative energy) that these coastal areas offer not only exceeds the value of oil and gas, but ensures the continuation of revenue associated with these services.
“The Florida coast in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico is also the habitat of the now-endangered and poorly understood population of Bryde’s whales. Noise from air gun surveys have been shown to impact whale calling behavior and cause possible long-term behavioral, physiological and population-level consequences. Given that this particular population only has approximately 30-40 individuals remaining, any introduced human impacts could threaten the survivorship of this population.”
John Fitzpatrick is the executive director of Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. He highlights how this set of bills would help to mitigate risk to bird populations.
“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is among the most biologically important wilderness areas in North America. Besides its stunning populations of big mammals, such as polar and grizzly bear, caribou, moose, and musk ox, ANWR is one of the most vital breeding grounds for a host of declining North American birds. Of particular importance, ANWR supplies a vast safe haven for thousands of long-distance migratory shorebirds such as American Golden Plover, Whimbrel, Hudsonian Godwit, Red-necked Phalarope, and ten species of sandpipers.
“All of these spectacular species are experiencing global population declines as a consequence of climate change in the Arctic, and to allow drilling in ANWR would jeopardize every one of these species. Anything that we can do to reduce the risk of oil spills along our embattled coastlines (Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico) will be vital for protecting these highly vulnerable species, so banning offshore drilling would be of enormous value.”
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