NMFS permit delays hold up Atlantic OCS seismic, IAGC official warns

Delays at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) are keeping crucial geophysical information from being gathered off Atlantic coastal states as the US Department of the Interior prepares to release its draft 2017-22 US Outer Continental Shelf plan, an International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC) executive said.

Geophysical contractors that have expressed interest in working there have to obtain an incidental take authorization (ITA) from NFMS, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, before DOI’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management can approve their applications, IAGC Executive Vice-Pres. Walt Rosenbusch said.

Reviews that normally take 9 months have gone on for more than 18 months and could reach the 2-year mark, Rosenbusch told reporters during a Mar. 14 teleconference with American Petroleum Institute Upstream and Industry Operations Group Director Erik Milito and National Ocean Industries Association Pres. Randall B. Luthi.

“We hope the authorizations will be issued sometime this month, or at least this spring,” Rosenbusch said. “All of the applicants already have received [Coastal Zone Management Act consistency] authorizations from the states near where they would be working. I hope that within 2-3 weeks of their receiving a final permit from BOEM, data acquisition could begin in 6-8 weeks. It’s a matter of mobilizing vessels from where they are currently working to move to the Atlantic.”

The ITAs might include conditions, but geophysical activity for other purposes has been taking place on the Atlantic OCS for years, he noted. “The most recent research has been off the New Jersey coast,” Rosenbusch said. “This is not new activity in the Atlantic. It’s confusing that these NMFS authorizations have taken this long.”

NMFS officials did not respond immediately to OGJ’s telephone requests for a comment.

‘Political red tape’

The delays matter because they make DOI rely on Atlantic offshore resource estimates that are decades old, the three teleconference participants emphasized. “It’s mind boggling that this research is being held up,” Milito said. “This is American energy security, American jobs, US government revenue, and American [gross domestic product] tied up by political red tape. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, stuck, off-limits to future generations as it waits for forward-looking energy policy.”

Luthi said, “To remain the world’s leading energy producer, the US needs a two-pronged approach: first, a broad range of energy sources, both traditional and nontraditional, and second, a broad geographical location of those resources. The draft proposed plan [(DPP)] was a step in that two pronged approach. We encourage [US Sec. of the Interior Sally] Jewell to stay the course.”

DOI included a lease sale off southern and mid-Atlantic coastal states in 2021 when it released the DPP early this year (OGJ Online, Jan. 27, 2015). Luthi, who directed BOEM’s predecessor agency, the US Minerals Management Service, late in President George W. Bush’s second term, said that the 2017-22 DPP still keeps 87% of the OCS off-limits to oil and gas activity. “It would be energy-foolish and short-sighted to remove more areas from consideration in the upcoming proposed program,” he said.

Milito said, “This industry continues to move forward in a cost-effective way not only here, but in the deepwater and the Arctic. If we can get seismic for companies to use, they might acquire leases in 2021. But actual activity wouldn’t occur until 2025 at the earliest. At some point, the capital will be there. This country will rely more on oil and gas then than it does now, so let’s not take opportunities away now.”

Public support for more US offshore oil and gas development is strong, Milito said. “Just today, a petition signed by more than 186,000 concerned citizens from around the country—but mostly from coastal states—is being delivered to Sec. Jewell’s office. More and more Americans will continue to write in support as the discussion continues. More than 500,000 energy voters submitted comments during the previous comment period.”

The Consumer Energy Alliance made a similar point on Mar. 11 when it released a report showing that mid-Atlantic municipalities passing resolutions opposing offshore energy activity represent only 7.2% of the population of all Atlantic states combined (including Washington, DC). “More specifically, when only considering resolution activity in the four Atlantic states where DOI has proposed offshore leasing in adjacent federal waters, the population of those residing in municipalities that have passed such antienergy organization-proposed resolutions falls to just 3.8% of those states’ combined population,” it said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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