Oil industry to pare Gulf seismic surveys

The oil and gas industry will take new steps to protect dolphins, whales and other marine life while conducting geological research in the Gulf of Mexico, under a legal settlement with environmentalists.

The pact, signed Thursday but still requiring approval by a federal  court, ends a 3-year-old challenge to the Interior Department’s oversight of the seismic testing used to help pinpoint possible pockets of oil and gas deep below the sea floor. Conservationists filed a lawsuit in 2010 alleging that Interior violated federal laws by failing to do a sufficiently thorough analysis of how the seismic studies could affect marine life in the region.

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Oil companies and groups, including Chevron and the American Petroleum Institute, had intervened in the lawsuit as defendants and agreed to the final deal, along with the government and the environmentalists who brought the legal challenge.

Michael Jasny, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s marine mammal protection protection project, said the “landmark” agreement “puts biologically important areas off limits to high-energy exploration, expands protections to additional at-risk species and requires the use of listening devices to help prevent injury to endangered sperm whales.”

Conservationists say the air guns generally used in seismic research produce pulses of sound that are loud enough not only to penetrate the ocean and under the seafloor but also to damage botlenose dolphins and sperm whales already harmed by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. The environmentalists say the blasts can disrupt mating, feeding and other behaviors by marine mammals, which depend on their hearing to communicate and navigate underwater.

The deal could help speed the development of potentially less intrusive technology for mapping what lies below the sea floor, by forcing American Petroleum Industry members to spearhead a four-year study of an air gun alternative called marine vibroseis, complete with testing of prototypes and peer-reviewed scientific analysis. If the study is not conducted or is abandoned, API would contribute $2 million to separate dolphin research.

The research obligated under the accord “takes the first step toward a long-term solution,” said Ellen Medlin, an associate attorney with the Sierra Club.

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More immediately, the industry will be barred from using air guns in some biologically important areas, including an area in the eastern Gulf of Mexico that is not currently targeted for oil and gas leasing. The tests still would be permitted on all currently leased blocks in the Gulf.

Some existing safeguards — including a requirement to shut down when whales are present — would apply also to research when manatees have been detected.

Airgun operations also would be completely barred in water depths less than 20 meters (65.6 feet) from March 1 until April 30. And in some relatively shallow biologically sensitive areas, boats would have to maintain a 30-kilometer (18.6 mile) distance from other research vessels when conducting seismic surveys under separate permits.

Seismic activity is one of the first steps in a long path to offshore drilling. Oil and gas companies use the data gleaned by geophysical contractors to discern what areas they may want to lease and where they want to pursue drilling. Some offshore drilling advocates fret that environmentalists’ push to limit seismic research ultimately is aimed at undercutting coastal oil and gas exploration.

API’s upstream director, Erik Milito, noted that “modern offshore oil and natural gas exploration requires the use of seismic surveys to feasibly and accurately prospect for oil and natural gas reserves offshore.”

In a statement, API said the industry already “employs a number of robust mitigation measures to further reduce the negligible risk of harm to marine mammals and has committed in this settlement to continuing them voluntarily — even when not legally required.

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As part of the settlement, the government agreed to convene a panel to determine whether it can adopt standards for determining when deep penetration seismic surveys are unnecessarily duplicative as well as the lowest practicable sound level for the research. If the panel believes developing those standards is feasible, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management would be obligated to pursue them.

The agency is already preparing to conduct a fresh environmental impact study of the effects of seismic surveys and other geological research. The last environmental analysis — the same one challenged by the environmentalists in their 2010 lawsuit — was done eight years ago, and the new study is expected to be released in a draft form by the middle of 2014.

The ocean energy bureau just concluded a round of public meetings aimed at helping to define the scope of the environmental analysis.

Separately, the ocean energy bureau is on track to unveil a final environmental study of a potential seismic research program from Delaware to Florida as early as November, after releasing a draft of that analysis last year.

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