August 5, 2015
regulators are taking the unusual step of providing a 30-day public
review and comment period before acting on applications related to
proposed seismic surveys for oil and natural gas off the Atlantic
coast. A decision on whether to issue the permits could come by the end
of the year.
Agency seeks comments on seismic permits
By MARK HIBBS
Coastal Review Online
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries
offices, also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS,
announced last week that it had filed notice on four requests for
permits to incidentally harass animals protected by the federal Marine
Mammal Protection Act. Companies that are planning seismic
surveys of the Atlantic Ocean for oil and natural gas have made the
NMFS, which oversees the conservation and protection of marine mammals
under the act, said in the announcement that the initial public review
comment period is not typical for the issuance of permits, “but it is
required for more complex actions.”
This graphic shows how seismic airgun testing is used to locate oil and gas deposits deep below the ocean floor. Graphic: Oceana
Comments and information must be received no later than Aug. 28 and
should be addressed to Jolie Harrison, chief, Permits and Conservation
Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries
Service. Physical comments should be sent to 1315 East-West Highway,
Silver Spring, MD 20910 and electronic comments should be sent to [email protected].
The decision to hold a public review and comment period was not
required by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the federal agency
responsible for leasing U.S. waters for energy production. The
unprecedented scope of the proposed operations was one factor in the
complexity that triggered the decision.
“We felt for a variety of reasons it would be a good idea to have this
period” said Benjamin Laws, a NMFS biologist at the Office of Protected
Resources in Silver Spring, Md.
NMFS said it would consider input from the public in making its final
determinations to issue or deny the permit that is also based on the
expected effects on marine mammal populations. The agency may authorize
the incidental taking of “small numbers” of marine mammals if the
taking will have no more than a negligible impact on the species or
Typically the decision process to issue or deny permits typically takes
six to nine months, but may take longer for projects that are more
complex, which Laws said is the case in this situation.
“Our target for that (a decision on the permits) is the end of this
calendar year” he said Tuesday. “We knew off the bat it would take
quite a bit of work to review those applications and work with the
Laws said the target date was the first timeline that his agency had
discussed and represents a “timeline we think is reasonable. We’ll do
our utmost effort to adhere to it but also do what we need to do and
take the time needed.”
NMFS said behavioral disturbance of individual marine mammals by
seismic surveys is well documented, meaning that protection act
authorization is required.
Jennie Lyons, a NMFS spokesperson, said authorization of incidental
harassment of small numbers of marine mammals is granted when the
disturbance is deemed to be of negligible effect, but when the
anticipated effects threaten the overall populations or stocks of
listed species there’s additional scrutiny. The potential effects
increase with the scale of the proposed survey activity.
“This group of actions is not typical as the proposed surveys are very
large in scale and complicated,” according to the announcement. The
proposed surveys are much larger than the typical academic seismic
survey – up to 17 times – and involve much larger acoustic sources that
produce more noise.
“Marine mammals don’t like the noise and they avoid the area,” Lyons
said. “This group of actions is not typical because of the scale and
complexity, which is unprecedented in U.S. waters.”
NOAA has received applications from Spectrum Geo Inc. of Houston,
Texas; TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Co., which has headquarters in Norway; ION
Geo Ventures of Houston; and TDI-Brooks International Inc., based in
College Station, Texas.
All requested permits would be for the maximum one year from the date
of issuance, with the exception of ION Geo Ventures, which has asked
that its permit be valid from July through December 2016.
Seismic tests use sound waves to penetrate deep into the ocean floor.
The reflected waves give scientists a profile of the underlying geology
and clues as to best places to looc for oil and natural. Anyone who has
ever gotten a diagnostic ultrasound test, is familiar with the concept.
Seismic tests are now a standard tool in the search for oil and gas and
have greatly reduced the chances of drilling dry holes.
map shows the seismic surveys that are proposed for N.C. waters. The
area of intense surveys are shaded. Map: N.C. Division of Coastal
Four applicants propose to conduct 2-D marine seismic surveys using
air-gun arrays, and TDI-Brooks also proposes to conduct more
sophisticated profiling – not using air gun arrays.
Seismic testing is controversial because the use of sound sources such
as those described in the applications may disturb marine mammals by
disrupting their patterns of behavior, such as migration according to
critics. It may also cause auditory injury. These risks warrant the
protection act authorization process, according to NMFS, but steps to
lessen the risk may be taken.
“In a lot of these cases there are observers out there and if they see
marine mammals they will stop the activity,” Lyons said, adding that
such a measure is merely example and not a recommendation specific to
the applications under review. Laws agreed.
“No package of mitigation is proposed at this time,” he said.
The starting point for review includes BOEM’s requirements and the
bureau’s environmental impact statement, along with what the applicant
companies have proposed. That’s where the consideration of input
received from the public comes into play.
“We think the public comment period will be productive,” Lyons said.
“We’re committed to a careful review and that’s why we’re doing a
public comment period. We’ll go back and forth with the applicant until
such time as we feel the application is complete, then it goes online.
If we get to the point of a proposal, then there’s a 30-day comment
NMFS is particularly interested in information addressing the following topics:
available scientific information and appropriate use of such
information in assessing potential effects of the specified activities
on marine mammals and their habitat.
- Application approaches to estimating acoustic exposure and take of marine mammals.
- Appropriate mitigation measures and monitoring requirements for these activities.
Comments indicating general support for or opposition to oil and gas
exploration and development are not considered relevant to the request
for information and will not be considered, according to NMFS.
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