Obama administration denies seismic testing permits, needed for oil exploration, in bid to protect marine life

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management decided Friday to turn aside six applications for permits that would allow seismic testing for fossil fuel deposits beneath the Atlantic Ocean.

BOEM, an agency of the U.S. Department of Interior, specifically cited the possibility that sonic harm might come to ocean animals as a reason for its action.

“In the present circumstances and guided by an abundance of caution, we believe that the value of obtaining the geophysical and geological information from new airgun seismic surveys in the Atlantic does not outweigh the potential risks of those surveys’ acoustic pulse impacts on marine life,” the agency’s director, Abigail Ross Hopper, said in a statement.

BOEM also pointed to the recently-finalized 2017-2022 plan for leasing mineral deposits on the nation’s outer continental shelf. That plan excludes the two regions in the Atlantic Ocean in which the seismic testing would occur.

The applicants denied permits for geological and geophysical testing included TGS, GX Technology Corp., WesternGeco LLC, CGG Services (US), Inc., Spectrum Geo, Inc., and PGS. All six entities primarily serve the oil and gas industry by assisting with exploration activities.

acoustic-survey-diagram-courtesy-boem
This graphic shows how seismic surveying at sea is done. Map courtesy U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Geological and geophysical surveys using airguns are performed because they assist fossil fuel exploration firms to determine an area’s stratigraphy, variety and location of rocks, and geologic structure.

Airguns allow observation to a depth of several thousand meters below the ocean floor. They explode from a position behind an exploration vessel every 10-15 seconds.

BOEM had previously consulted with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, as required by the Endangered Species Act, during the course of preparing an environmental impact statement on its Atlantic seismic surveying permit program. There are  several marine species in the area in which the seismic surveys would have been conducted that are on the federal list of threatened and endangered species.

“Sonic blasting causes tremendous harm to endangered whales and fish,” Michael Jasny, the director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at Natural Resources Defense Council, said.

Jasny went on to explain that use of seismic airguns “is known to disrupt foraging and other vital behaviors in endangered whales, displace fish, and harm commercial fisheries over vast areas of the ocean.”

BOEM had previously estimated that issuance of the six permits would result in millions of incidents of harassment of whales and dolphins during a five-year period. In the case of sperm whales, it is possible that hundreds of individuals could lose their ability to hunt, navigate in the ocean, and communicate with others in the species if the seismic surveys proceeded.

BOEM has acknowledged that the airguns can cause hearing loss and death in whales and fish.

 

Advertisements

Obama blocks oil drilling in Arctic, part of Atlantic oceans

000bf-polarbear-courtesyusfwsphotobyterrydebruhn
This photograph of a polar bear, one of the wildlife species that may benefit from President Barack Obama’s decision, was taken by Terry DeBruhn. Image courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Relying on a statute from the 1950s, President Barack Obama moved Tuesday to permanently shut off the Arctic and a significant portion of the Atlantic oceans along the nation’s coasts to oil and gas exploration.

The White House announced that Obama invoked authority granted by the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to withdraw the Chukchi Sea Planning Area, most of the Beaufort Sea Planning Area, and 5,990 square miles of canyons in the Atlantic Ocean between New England and the Chesapeake Bay from fossil fuel activities.

Obama said in a statement that his decision was motivated by a desire to “protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on earth.”

“They reflect the scientific assessment that, even with the high safety standards that both our countries have put in place, the risks of an oil spill in this region are significant and our ability to clean up from a spill in the region’s harsh conditions is limited,” Obama explained. “By contrast, it would take decades to fully develop the production infrastructure necessary for any large-scale oil and gas leasing production in the region – at a time when we need to continue to move decisively away from fossil fuels.”

arctic-ocean-withdrawal-map-courtesy-boem
Map courtesy U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

The OCLA was enacted in 1953. Section 12(a) of OCLA, 43 U.S.C. § 1341(a), provides that “[t]he President of the United States may, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer Continental Shelf.”

The statute imposes no constraints on the President’s authority to order such a withdrawal. In that way it is similar to the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives Presidents the power to declare national monuments.

In both cases, Congress delegated its power over federal property to the President, but the grant could well be interpreted by a federal court as a “one-way ratchet” that does not permit a later President to reverse a predecessor’s decision to withdraw OCSLA areas from energy exploration activities.

The reach of section 12(a) has not been tested in litigation.

John D. Leshy, a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and a former solicitor of the Department of Interior, told Atlantic Monthly that he believes Obama’s decision should be upheld in federal court if it is challenged by fossil fuel advocates.

“I think it was quite a realistic thing that Obama did, and it should be upheld—but who knows,” he said.

Congress could, of course, pass a bill reversing Obama’s move, but that legislation would have to clear a likely filibuster by U.S. Senate Democrats on the way to Trump’s desk.

atlantic-canyon-withdrawal-map-courtesy-boem
Map courtesy U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

Presidents also have authority under OCLA to craft five-year exploration plans. Obama has used that tool, too, as a way of reducing the American fossil fuel footprint in sensitive marine areas.

On Nov. 18 the administration issued the final five-year OCLA lease program that covers the years 2017-2022. It proposes one sale in waters off Alaska, in Cook Inlet, and none in the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans. The 2017-2022 lease program anticipates 10 sales of exploration rights in the Gulf of Mexico.

Canada also undertook action to ban future fossil fuel exploration in the Arctic on Dec. 20. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that his country would impose the prohibition for five years.

“Canada is designating all Arctic Canadian waters as indefinitely off limits to future offshore Arctic oil and gas licensing, to be reviewed every 5 years through a climate and marine science-based life-cycle assessment,” Trudeau said in a joint statement by Canada and the U.S.

No Canadian oil and gas activity in the Arctic has occurred since 2006.

Alaska and other states retain authority to authorize oil drilling in the first three miles of ocean beyond their shores as management of those areas of the continental shelf are entrusted to them and is not subject to federal control.

NYT: Obama administration to allow drilling off Atlantic coast, ban it in Arctic seas

The New York Times, in an online article that appeared Monday evening, reports that the Obama administration will announce Tuesday a decision to allow oil exploration on the Atlantic coast while forbidding it in areas of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off Alaska.

Areas along the Eastern seaboard that would be affected by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management decision would be between Virginia and Georgia.

No oil exploration has occurred off the country’s Atlantic coast since the early 1980s. However, political pressure to resume the practice has grown in recent years. In March 2010 President Barack Obama said that he favored drilling off the East coast states shorelines, but in the aftermath of that year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill along the Gulf coast, the Department of Interior decided to hold off issuing any leases until at least 2017.

A Dec. 2014 study by BOEM concluded that the mean quantity of oil beneath the Atlantic waves and under the continental shelf could be as much as 4.72 billion barrels. The amount exploitable between Virginia and Georgia would likely be as much as about 3 billion barrels, according to the agency. BOEM also found that the area along the coast that encompasses Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia may also hide about 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The decision on Arctic drilling would follow the announcement Sunday by President Barack Obama that he will ask Congress to designate more than 12 million additional acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. That designation, if approved by Congress, would included the refuge’s coastal plain.

About 7 million acres of the 54-plus year old Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was preserved from most forms of natural resource exploitation in 1980.

Obama’s effort to nearly triple the wilderness acreage in the Mollie Beattie Wilderness would, if successful, create the largest single component of the National Wilderness Preservation System.