NMFS proposes allowing Mid-Atlantic OCS seismic incidental takes

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed issuing five incidental take authorizations (ITA) to offshore geophysical contractors so they can conduct seismic surveys along the US South and Mid-Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf. Comments will be taken until July 6, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration division said in a notice scheduled to be published in the June 6 Federal Register.

The International Association of Geophysical Contractors was among the first oil and gas associations to welcome the news. “Nearly 700 days after the first applications for ITAs were submitted to NMFS, our members will finally have the opportunity to comment on proposed authorizations,” said Dustin Van Lieu, regulatory and government affairs director.

National Ocean Industries Association Pres. Randall B. Luthi noted, “Today, seismic surveys produce subsurface images much clearer than those from decades ago, and generally lead to increased resource estimates. Should the surveys be permitted and completed, they will provide policymakers an up-to-date and more scientifically accurate picture of the offshore oil and gas resources off our Atlantic seaboard.”

NMFS announced its proposal to issue the ITAs nearly 5 months after the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management denied the applications to shoot seismic along the South and Mid-Atlantic OCS which it initially solicited as early as 2014 (OGJ Online, Jan. 6, 2017). “Since federal waters in the South and Mid-Atlantic have been removed from leasing consideration for the next 5 years, there is no immediate need for these surveys,” then-BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper said at the time.

An official from the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources essentially confirmed during a June 5 teleconference with reporters that BOEM tried to stop programs that could lead to Atlantic OCS oil and gas leasing while Hopper was in charge. The US Department of the Interior agency reversed that stand when it announced that it would reconsider applications that the geophysical contractors submitted to shoot seismic along the South and Mid-Atlantic OCS after Hopper left (OGJ Online, May 11, 2017).

Her Jan. 5 denial of the seismic survey permit applications underestimated benefits of obtaining updated geologic and geophysical information now, and placed undue emphasis on possible impacts despite conclusions in the Atlantic G&G Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision showing that no significant impacts are expected, according to a BOEM internal document which OGJ has obtained.

Disrupted customary review

Preempting regulatory review of the applications also eliminated the process by which the agency normally weighs potential impacts in reviewing applications, said Walter D. Cruikshank, BOEM acting director, in the May 10 memorandum to Michael Celata, the agency’s Gulf of Mexico regional director.

“Here, the G&G information sought addresses not only the applicant’s needs, but also (DOI’s] need for acquiring resource information. Given the improvements in seismic technology since the last G&G data in the Atlantic OCS was collected, halting the review of the G&G Permit Applications would close the door on the possibility of [Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke] potentially acquiring the most up-to-date information for meeting his Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act responsibilities,” Cruikshank said.

“We believe that measures we have put in place will reduce the likelihood of injuries to these marine mammals. As we’ve stated before, we do have concerns about possible problems from this activity,” said Jolie Harrison, permits and conservation division chief in the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, during the June 5 teleconference with reporters.

“Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a take can include a mortality, which we don’t anticipate at all; injury, which may involve a loss of hearing; or harassment, which would involve a change in behavior such as a mammal swimming a great distance out of its way,” Harrison said.

“We require the use of passive acoustic monitoring systems which would help detect the presence of these animals,” said Benjamin Laws, a biologist in the same NOAA Fisheries office. “An ITA would be issued for a one-year period in coordination with the issuing of a permit by BOEM.”

Harrison said NOAA currently is involved in environmental compliance in the gulf where oil and gas operators have been gathering information for a long time. “We’ve had ITAs issued for the industry not only in the Gulf of Mexico but also in the Arctic,” she said. Harrison said it typically takes 6-9 months to receive an ITA, but the process can take years if precedents are going to be set and complex issues are raised.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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