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.

 

Obama administration releases revised draft environmental study on Arctic drilling

The federal agency that oversees hydrocarbon exploration in waters off America’s coasts released Friday a new study of the impacts of drilling in the Chukchi sea.

Coming about ten months after a federal appeals court rejected a prior effort by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the draft supplemental environmental impact statement concludes that there is a high likelihood of a large oil spill in the fragile Arctic region if development of exploration leases proceeds.

Environmental advocacy group leaders used the occasion to sharply criticize the Obama administration’s ongoing commitment to consider allowing Royal Dutch Shell PLC and other oil companies to hunt for fossil fuels in the far north.

“Companies are not prepared to operate in unforgiving Arctic waters,” Susan Murray, a senior vice president at Oceana, said in a statement. “There is no proven way to respond to an oil spill in icy conditions and almost no infrastructure from which to launch a response to any kind of accident.”

One significant worry for the environmental community is the impact drilling would have on the region’s wildlife. The Chukchi sea provides habitat for several imperiled species, including the polar bear, walrus, and bowhead whales.

“Whether it will be from an almost inevitable oil spill, or from the unavoidable noises from seismic surveys, vessel and platform stabilization, underwater acoustic communications, seafloor hydrocarbon processing, and re-injection well compressors; we know that oil and gas operations will disrupt the habitat for Arctic marine life which we know so little about – and upon which we may very well depend,” Michael Stocker, Ocean Conservation Research’s director, said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, ruled in January that a prior environmental impact statement failed to consider all of the possible impacts of drilling in the region.The prior EIS assumed that only about 1 billion barrels of oil would be extracted from beneath the roiling waves in the Chukchi; the new draft EIS considers that production will total about 4.3 billion barrels.

Shell experienced numerous difficulties in a 2012 attempt to prepare for exploration activities, including the grounding of a drilling vessel.

The new EIS will be published in the Federal Register on Nov. 7. A 45-day comment period will occur before BOEM can make a final decision about whether to permit exploration activity to commence in 2015.

The $2.7 billion lease at issue was finalized in Feb. 2008.

Shell again asks Interior to allow Arctic oil drilling

Bowhead whales inhabit the shallow Chukchi Sea. An endangered species, Balaena mysticetus can grow to 40 feet in length and weigh up to 100 tons. Walruses, ringed seals, a variety of whale species, and polar bears also inhabit the Chukchi Sea, as do millions of sea birds of many species. Photo courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, photo by Dave Rugh.
Bowhead whales inhabit the shallow Chukchi Sea. An endangered species, Balaena mysticetus can grow to 40 feet in length and weigh up to 100 tons. Walruses, ringed seals, a variety of whale species, and polar bears also inhabit the Chukchi Sea, as do millions of sea birds of many species. Photo courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, photo by Dave Rugh.

Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell PLC has decided to again seek U.S. government permission to drill for oil in the Arctic.

The company filed an exploration plan with the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on Thursday, according to a report in Financial Times.

An earlier effort to obtain approval for drilling in the fragile Chukchi Sea was blocked by the federal appeals court in San Francisco, which ruled that BOEM’s environmental impact statement on $2 billion worth of leases sold to Shell did not comply with federal law. The decision in Native Village of Point Hope v. Jewell pushed Shell’s nearly decade long effort to extract hydrocarbons from some of the most environmentally sensitive marine areas on Earth back to the drawing boards.

Shell has also experienced a series of machinery disasters in the Arctic, including the grounding of a vessel off the coast of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska in 2012. A Coast Guard report on that incident released last April concluded that “inadequate assessment and management of risks” was a principal cause of it.

Within U.S. terrritorial waters, the federal government owns the sea and seabed beyond 5.6 kilometers past the shoreline. Two statutes that date back to the 1950s – the Submerged Lands Act and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act – together authorize the secretary of the interior to lease submerged oil and gas deposits. However, that authority is subject to a variety of constraints imposed by broadly applicable environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA requires federal agencies to study the environmental impact of “major federal actions” before moving forward with them.

The drilling rig Kulluk ran aground near Alaska on Dec. 31, 2012. This image shows the distressed vessel on Jan. 1, 2013. Image courtesy Wikimedia.
The drilling rig Kulluk ran aground near Alaska on Dec. 31, 2012. This image shows the distressed vessel on Jan. 1, 2013. Image courtesy Wikimedia.