Environmentalists tap actor to warn about offshore seismic

WASHINGTON — A conservation group is hoping a little star power will draw more attention to its concerns about seismic oil and gas research proposed in Atlantic waters.

When Oceana holds a congressional briefing on the subject Thursday, the event’s moderator will be Reid Scott, an actor best known for his portrayal of communication director Dan Eagan on HBO’s “Veep.” Other less high-profile speakers include East Coast lawmakers and a seismic researcher from Duke University.

This isn’t the first time that the conservation group has tapped celebrities to spotlight the potential risks to whales, dolphins and other marine life from seismic studies that may be allowed to help pinpoint underground oil and gas along the East Coast. In March, the group released a public service announcement starring actress Miranda Cosgrove making an appeal to “stop unnecessary and damaging seismic air gun testing.”

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is in the final stages of deciding whether that work can be allowed and under what conditions. The research involves air gun blasts that send sound deep underground. Sensors record the echoes that bounce back from subterranean geological structures and use the data to draw a picture of what might be lurking below the seafloor.

Safeguards

But under the government’s preferred approach, outlined in an environmental analysis released in February, the research could be done with some safeguards, including a ban on simultaneous seismic surveys and a limit on accessing the migratory routes of the endangered North Atlantic right whale. The Interior Department could issue a record of decision formally adopting that approach as soon as June 7.

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Oceana says the proposed protections aren’t good enough and that the government overlooked studies documenting harm to marine animals from air gun blasts.

“The sound from air guns can travel hundreds to thousands of miles underwater and across entire ocean basins,” noted Oceana and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, in comments filed with the bureau earlier this month. “Humpback and fin whales stopped vocalizing in a 100,000 square mile area during air gun activity. Evidence shows that blasts cause baleen whales to abandon habitats.”

Fewer dry holes

Oil industry officials say the research guides later drilling decisions — helping reduce the environmental disturbance for wells that turn up dry. And they note big advances in the way seismic research is being conducted, including innovations on the horizon that could pare its footprint further.

“The industry’s advancements in geophysical technology — including seismic reflection and refraction, gravity, magnetics and electromagnetic — will provide more realistic estimates of the potential resource,” said Karen St. John, environment group vice president for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors. “By utilizing these tools and by applying increasingly accurate and effective interpretation practices, IAGC’s members can better locate and dissect prospective areas for exploration.”

At least nine firms have asked the bureau to conduct the seismic studies.

Research this year

Former bureau director Tommy Beaudreau — now the chief of staff to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell — said seismic research could be underway this year.

At least one company has already begun seeking other permits that would be required to do the work from other agencies, Beaudreau said in an April interview.

“In part, it depends on the individual contractors’ schedule and when they would like to proceed,” he said. But “potentially, we could see a survey as early as the end of the year.”

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The government is not planning to sell leases to drill in Atlantic waters before August 2017, but it could schedule auctions of the territory as part of a plan governing sales through 2022. Work on that five-year plan is set to begin soon.

Beaudreau stressed that Atlantic territory would not be ruled out initially just because seismic research isn’t ready.

“We will have a very systematic, robust and open process as we collect information on whether ultimately the secretary should make a decision about leasing in the 2017 to 2022 time frame in an area like the mid-and south-Atlantic,” Beaudreau said. “We want to have — assuming it can be done safely and responsibly — modern seismic information about that area. It will inform the significance of the resource potential but also help us design and configure any potential sale.”


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