Buffeted by breaking waves and a brisk ocean breeze, the town of Rodanthe balances on a precarious shard of land along the Outer Banks . From here, the eastern-most point in North Carolina, it is less than 45 miles to an expanse of the sea where energy corporations plan to puncture the ocean bed in search of oil and gas.
But first, seismic testing companies must do their reconnaissance. To do so, they deploy a boat towing an array of 24 airguns firing every 10 to 15 seconds for 24 hours each day, as many as 208 days a year. At low frequencies, the sound ping-pongs among the ridges and valleys of the ocean bed, and the returning echo patterns can reveal the locations of the energy deposits.
The sounds also reveal the vulnerability of sea life  to human-made intrusions. Scientific studies have shown the sound can injure, kill and deafen marine life, including fish, whales and dolphins — forcing them to flee their habitats and blunting their desire to eat and breed.
Last week, the federal government overruled North Carolina’s objection to seismic testing off the coast, saying the activity proposed by the company WesternGeco  is in the national interest. The decision allows the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management to issue permits for seismic testing on the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf, roughly from Maryland to Florida. Four more companies have requested permits.
Environmental coastal advocates condemned the decision.
“The decision to overrule the state shows the unwillingness of the federal government to listen to the wishes of the people,” said Larry Baldwin, Crystal Coast waterkeeper. “That arrogance goes even further when a decision by the state of North Carolina, which has been very outspoken against seismic and drilling, is completely ignored.”
“This news again shows the total disregard for the citizens of North Carolina by this administration,” said Oceana Senior Campaign Organizer Randy Sturgill of Wilmington. “President Trump’s radical offshore drilling plan is a threat to all coastal communities. Seismic blasting and offshore drilling threatens our fishing, tourism, and recreation industries and everyone who visits or calls our coast home.”
The decision was signed by Neil Jacobs, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere. (Jacobs was a central figure in “Sharpiegate” during Hurricane Dorian, in which a forecast path was altered to align with President Trump’s erroneous statement that Alabama could be hit by the storm. Earlier this month, a federal investigation found Jacobs “engaged in the misconduct intentionally, knowingly, or in reckless disregard” for the NOAA’s scientific integrity policy.)
The targeted area for seismic testing and energy drilling is known as “The Point,” about 38 miles from Manteo and 45 miles from Rodanthe. It is home to 60 species of whales, including the endangered Right Whale, and dolphins, said Doug Nowacek, professor and chair of Marine Conservation Technology at Duke University’s Marine Laboratory. “It is one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the western North Atlantic Ocean — maybe the Atlantic entirely. For some species of whales, like the sensitive Cuvier’s beaked whale, the density is higher than anywhere else in the world.”
In April 2014, WesternGeo applied to BOEM for a permit to conduct seismic testing on a stretch of the Outer Continental Shelf from Virginia to South Carolina. Then-Gov. Pat McCrory supported the testing and potential drilling.
But under Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration,  the NC Department of Environmental Quality contested the permits,  arguing that seismic testing, even conducted 40-plus miles off the coast, would reduce the volume of fish catches and harm the state’s fishing industry. That sector provides 50,000 jobs, $1.5 billion in annual income, $3.9 billion in annual sales.
Initially the state prevailed. In 2017, BOEM denied the applications of all five companies, saying the “value of obtaining the information from the surveys does not outweigh the risks of obtaining said informatics.”
But shortly after taking office, President Trump signed an executive order to expedite oil and gas exploration on the Outer Continental Shelf. As a result BOEM rescinded its denial of the permits and re-evaluated them.
In its recent decision, Neil Jacobs cited the need to for the U.S. to be energy independent. Although the U.S. is a net exporter of energy, that doesn’t mean the U.S. has energy self-sufficiency,” the ruling read.
“Our energy economy is trending toward wind and solar,” said Erin Carey, director of coastal programs for the NC chapter of the Sierra Club. “This action by the Trump administration is in line with propping up a dirty industry”
The federal government also cited a scientific dispute over the long-term and permanent harm marine life, including sea turtles, scallops and plankton, can suffer from the effects of seismic testing. Many marine mammals in particular, rely on sound to navigate, and the frequencies of the air guns can interfere with their ability to do so.
For example, a research team including Nowacek tracked sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico in the early 2000s and found the closer they were to air guns, the lower their rate of foraging attempts.
The National Marine Fisheries Service acknowledges that some “individual fin whales could experience minor permanent hearing loss” that “may affect their fitness” — meaning survival. But NMFS concluded the the harm doesn’t rise to “a population level consequence for the species.”
The rest of whales suffered only “minor and temporary hearing threshold shifts,” according to NMFS.
NMFS also rebutted a study by Australian scientist R.D. McCauley, who found that the sounds from air guns killed plankton, the building block for the marine food chain. His team used just a single gun air gun pulled behind a boat, and measured the amount of plankton before and after it fired. “They found a lot of dead plankton,” Nowacek said.
A separate study, though, found no effect on plankton, but that air gun was only fired once in a pond, instead of the tens of thousands of times that are required to map the sea floor.
In fact, since as many as five companies could receive permits to conduct the seismic tests within the same area — the information would likely be redundant — the number of shots and volume of sound could be overwhelming.
NMFS says it has found only “temporary and localized kills of marine life and only at relative close distances.”
Nowacek said several studies have revealed that fish catches decrease after a seismic survey. It’s unclear if the animals fled, died or were injured. “There is this idea that displacement is OK, but it’s not always,” Nowacek said.
“As a scientist, my gut reaction is the jury is still out,” Nowacek said. “But if seismic testing is going to continue, we need to really understand the impacts on turtles, fish and plankton. Seismic surveys are among the loudest sounds we put in the water. Air guns are controlled explosions. If all of the surveys occur as proposed, the number of shots is staggering.”