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South Carolina Rep. Joe Cunningham Sounds Off Air Horn To Demonstrate Seismic Testing

This article is more than 4 years old.

Congressman Joe Cunningham (@RepCunningham) made it loud and clear: In a recent hearing, he used an air horn to demonstrate what seismic testing in the ocean might sound like to aquatic life.

He asked Chris Oliver, an assistant administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, how much louder he thought the seismic blasts would be compared to the jarring noise of the air horn.

"I honestly don't know," Oliver responds.

In a reasonable distance, Cunningham says, "It's 16,000 times louder."

Cunningham tells Here & Now's Lisa Mullins that seismic testing “is extremely harmful and disruptive to marine species, including whales, including animals that rely on sound to find food or to communicate with one another.”

So if the NOAA assistant administrator didn’t know how loud seismic testing can be, then how did Cunningham?

“We used math and science, and I know that sometimes these days, that seems to be a stranger in the halls of our Congress. But that's what we rely on,” he says. “And we know the decibels of an air horn, and we know the decibels of this seismic airgun blasting. The official from NOAA did not know that. And so, it's incumbent upon us to educate him on on that and educate the public on how destructive this could be.”

Seismic airgun testing is used to locate the optimal place to drill for oil. The airguns are towed behind ships and shoot loud blasts of compressed air through the water.

There are currently five companies awaiting final permits from the Interior Department to begin seismic testing between New Jersey and Florida. If that were to happen, there would be a sound going off underwater about every 10 seconds.

A lawsuit filed in December against the federal government to prevent those seismic blasting permits in the Atlantic Ocean says, “In total, the authorized seismic surveys could harm thirty-four species of marine mammals, including five endangered and threatened whale populations, four species of endangered sea turtles, and many species of fish and invertebrates.”

Others argue that over time, seismic testing would be beneficial for the state.

In November, a study by the South Carolina Petroleum Council reported that the state could benefit nearly $1.6 billion in tax revenue over the next 20 years by allowing access to tap into oil and gas reserves.

Cunningham says those rewards are not worth the risk of offshore drilling. He “absolutely” believes that offshore drilling in South Carolina — especially if there was ever an oil spill — would “decimate” the state’s tourism.

People visit South Carolina for “the hospitality, the food, the beaches, the environment,” he says, so offshore drilling would “absolutely” hurt the state’s tourism, setting South Carolina back “decades on decades.”

“We are fighting this on every single front,” he says. He introduced a bill, called the Coastal Economies Protection Act, that would place a 10-year moratorium on offshore drilling and seismic airgun blasting along South Carolina’s coastline. He expects the bill will make its way to the Senate.

“And I would expect that our South Carolina senators, Graham and Scott, would do the right thing and get to the floor for a vote,” he says.

Mark Navin produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Tinku Ray and Peter O'DowdSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on March 14, 2019.


Lisa Mullins Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.


Serena McMahon Digital Producer
Serena McMahon was a digital producer for Here & Now.



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