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By Alan Kovski
Five oil and gas service companies are awaiting decisions by the National Marine Fisheries Service on their proposals for Atlantic offshore seismic surveys that could harm whales and other marine life.
The service, which can issue authorizations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, is reviewing a high volume of opposing and supporting public comments that were filed by the July 21 deadline.
The five companies are TGS NOPEC Geophysical Co. ASA, Spectrum ASA, ION Geophysical Corp., CGG S.A. and WesternGeco Ltd., a subsidiary of Schlumberger Ltd. A sixth company, TDI-Brooks International Inc., recently expressed an interest in restarting the application for an authorization after an earlier application was returned to the company as incomplete.
The fisheries service proposed authorizations with a variety of mitigation measures to reduce risks to marine mammals. If the authorizations are granted—with or without additional mitigation steps—the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will be able to make final decisions on whether to issue one-year permits for the work.
The fisheries service has no deadline for its decisions. BOEM is expected to be able to act quickly if the service gives the green light.
If a group of nine attorneys general has its way, there will be no seismic surveys for oil and gas in the Atlantic. The attorneys general for eight East Coast states and the District of Columbia, all Democrats, asked the National Marine Fisheries Service to deny the authorizations.
Environmental activists and many marine biologists fear deep-penetration seismic surveys using air-gun arrays to fire acoustic waves will harm mammals, fish, and other life. The nine attorneys general offered similar concerns in a letter to the fisheries service.
The attorneys general also made it clear that they opposed oil and gas drilling and production in the Atlantic. “Every step of the oil and gas exploration process threatens irreplaceable natural resources,” they said.
The attorneys general were from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia.
Three oil and gas industry associations—International Association of Geophysical Contractors, the American Petroleum Institute and the National Ocean Industries Association—sent a letter to the fisheries service expressing support for the planned geophysical surveying and argued that it would “have no more than a negligible impact on marine mammal species or stocks.”
The Obama administration resounded the position that the surveys shouldn’t be expected to have a notable impact on species or stocks. Applications for permits from that administration were rejected only after a decision was made to avoid leasing any Atlantic offshore area for exploration drilling in the 2017-2022 leasing program. That decision made the surveys unnecessary, the Obama administration said.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has not yet publicly released the comments on the seismic surveys.
Still unanswered is whether anyone will actually do the work even if they have the incidental harassment authorizations and the BOEM permits. Many seismic companies will not conduct a survey without oil and gas company customers lined up to finance the work, and customers may wait until the federal government schedules Atlantic offshore leasing, and there’s no assurance that will happen.
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