WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s Interior Department is on track this week to release a final environmental analysis that would help pave the way for the first seismic studies in decades to pinpoint oil and gas off the East Coast, as well as potential drilling in the 2020s.
But marine scientists, conservationists and some lawmakers are pushing back against the environmental study even before its expected Friday release, saying the analysis is fundamentally flawed — and legally vulnerable — if the Interior Department doesn’t wait for a separate federal agency to finalize new guidelines on how much sound marine mammals can tolerate.
Going forward without considering the acoustic guidelines still being developed by the National Marine Fisheries Service could mean underestimating the auditory injuries to dolphins, whales and other sea life from the blasts of compressed air used in the seismic studies, 102 scientists and biologists said in a letter to President Barack Obama.
“If the programmatic environmental impact statement moves forward without the newly established acoustic guidelines, it will be scientifically deficient and quickly outdated,” the group said in a Feb. 20 letter. “It will fail to accurately assess the true scope of marine mammal impacts from proposed seismic surveys.”
Signers on the letter included government scientists, research associates with Texas A&M University and marine biologists from around the globe.
Nine senators underscored the scientists’ concerns in their own missive to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Wednesday. Led by Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., the group insisted that the coming environmental analysis should be put on hold until “all of the best available science can be incorporated.”
“There is no reason to rush the (analysis) or permit seismic surveys in the mid- and south Atlantic without considering this new scientific information.”
The last-minute appeals highlight a possible opening for litigation should the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management ultimately decide to approve seismic research along the East Coast.
Although the bureau will not explicitly approve or deny the seismic studies in its coming environmental analysis, the agency’s conclusions will help dictate how it handles individual permit applications. It also will guide the steps that companies would have to take to help safeguard marine life while conducting the geophysical research.
So far nine companies have asked for 13 permits to do the work, which would represent the first geophysical data collection along the East Coast in more than three decades.
Oil and gas companies are eager to get a fresh glimpse at the potential resources lurking under the Atlantic seafloor, in anticipation that the government could sell drilling rights in the region after an existing offshore leasing plan expires on Aug. 26, 2017. No auctions of East Coast leases are scheduled under the current five-year plan, but the ocean energy bureau could include them in the 2017-2022 blueprint.
Since the last generation of Atlantic seismic studies, “technological advances have dramatically improved our ability to pinpoint likely reservoirs, which makes existing resource estimates in that area out of date,” the American Petroleum Institute said in a statement. “New surveys using state-of-the-art techniques and technology would provide a better understanding of the oil and natural gas resource potential in the Atlantic outer continental shelf.”
The research generally begins on ships using compressed air guns to produce loud, periodic blasts underwater. Long arrays of sensors towed behind the vessels record the sound waves bouncing back after penetrating the seafloor. The resulting data and maps can give oil and gas companies an educated guess about potential deposits.
Conservationists say the pulses of sound can injure marine life that are especially reliant on their hearing for navigation, including the roughly 500 North Atlantic right whales still estimated to be alive today.
They have urged the government to impose strict restraints on any allowed seismic research, including possibly the use of still-developing technology that would be less disruptive. Other, more likely options include prohibitions during whale migration and timeouts when animals near the operations.
But geologists counter that broad prohibitions would be impractical, especially given the tendency of some sea life to cluster around their vessels. Industry representatives have estimated that a ship forced to pause research and restart could spend six hours repositioning because of the long trailing sound arrays — a potentially $150,000 proposition for the most sophisticated systems.
Oil industry leaders and their allies in Congress say the stepped-up scrutiny of seismic data is fundamentally driven by offshore drilling foes who know the geophysical research is an essential first step to oil and gas exploration. By that logic, delaying the seismic studies or making them impractical could help short-circuit eventual drilling.
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