WASHINGTON — Marking a significant step toward eventual oil drilling off the East Coast, the Interior Department is set to publish a final assessment of the environmental effects of a new generation of seismic research in U.S. Atlantic waters.
Walter Cruikshank, the deputy director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, told a House Natural Resources subcommittee on Friday that the agency is on track to issue the report by the end of February, nearly two years after publishing a first draft.
Cruikshank called the environmental review “particularly complicated.”
“There are a lot of species out there and a lot of ocean to cover. We’re continuing to learn new things as we conduct this research,” he said. “There was a wealth of information that came in and had to be evaluated.”
At issue are the potential repercussions of seismic research used to help pinpoint underground oil and gas. The last geophysical data collected along the East Coast dates back decades, and oil companies are eager to get a fresh glimpse at the potential resources lurking under U.S. Atlantic waters.
The Obama administration has ruled off selling drilling rights in the Atlantic Ocean before Aug. 26, 2017, when the government’s current five-year offshore leasing plan ends. But the ocean energy bureau soon will begin developing a plan for 2017-2022, and seismic research in the Atlantic is viewed as essential to future oil development in the region.
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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.
James Knapp, a University of South Carolina geology professor who used to work for the oil industry, likened seismic studies to medical X-rays and scans. They are “the single most important tool for investigating the oil and gas potential of the subsurface,” Knapp told the Natural Resources panel.
Richie Miller, president of Houston geophysical research firm Spectrum Geo, noted that seismic studies have largely replaced the drill bit as an initial tool to search for oil. Later drilling can determine whether oil or gas are present.
The ocean energy bureau wouldn’t be explicitly approving or denying seismic studies by issuing its final environmental analysis. But the agency’s conclusions will help dictate how it handles individual permit applications. So far nine companies have asked for 13 permits to do the work.
Conservationists want protections for marine mammals that might be harmed by the testing. They 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 injure dolphins and whales.
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.
On Thursday, congressional Democrats asked Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to stop authorizing new seismic research in U.S. waters until it is clear how the work affects marine life.
“Recent reports have shown that these activities can have significant impacts on marine mammals, fish, and their habitats,” the Democrats said in a letter to Jewell. “It is not at all clear that these impacts are being given serious consideration when decisions about offshore resource development are being made.”
Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and a member of the presidential commission that investigated the Deepwater Horizon disaster, said science is not clear on how seismic studies affect marine life.
“Part of the problem that the agency has in making these decisions is that the science isn’t all lined up in the same direction,” he said. “It’s not that there are no concerns and no risk.”
He said the issue has spurred legitimate scientific debate.
But Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., suggested critics’ primary goal is thwarting offshore oil development in the Atlantic by delaying seismic work.
“It’s not the seismology that is the issue,” he said.
Even if the government authorizes geophysical research from Delaware to Florida, the area under review, required environmental safeguards could make the studies too expensive, said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C. Potential requirements include prohibitions during whale migration and timeouts whenever some animals come close to the operations.
“I don’t want to see the mitigation efforts be so cost prohibitive and so large and cumbersome that we don’t have the seismic activity happen,” Duncan said.
Industry representatives estimate that if a vessel doing sophisticated seismic studies has to pause operations and restart, the resulting repositioning could span six hours — at a potential price tag of $150,000.