Feds study Gulf wildlife to make way for wind turbines

Two federal agencies are laying the foundation for wind turbines to join oil derricks in the Gulf of Mexico, by launching a study of the effects seismic research poses on whales and fish in the region.

The environmental impact study by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service will look closely at the potential impacts from seismic surveys and other geological research meant to help pinpoint oil reservoirs as well as scout locations for wind turbines and other energy infrastructure.

The last environmental analysis was done nearly a decade ago, before the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, and the new study is expected to be released in a draft form by the middle of 2014. It will help guide future permitting of seismic surveys in the region, whether done for oil and gas development or renewable energy initiatives.

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Conservationists critical of seismic research cheered the development.

Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said she was encouraged that the government “is finally scrutinizing” the sound associated with seismic research, including air guns that produce pulss loud enough not only to penetrate under the seafloor but also damage marine life.

“Whales and dolphins in the Gulf depend on sound for communication and finding food, but these blasts – sometimes as loud as an explosion – make it all but impossible,” Sakashita said.

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.

The new Gulf-focused study is meant to guide the Interior Department’s decisions on approving oil and geophysical companies’ requests for permits to conduct seismic surveys in the future.

A coalition of environmentalists sued the Interior Department in 2010, saying regulators had run afoul of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act by allowing seismic surveys without a fresh look at the environmental impacts of the geophysical research on whales and dolphins in the region. That lawsuit is still pending in the Eastern District Court of Louisiana.

Some oil industry leaders have said that environmentalists are targeting the government’s handling of seismic survey permits as a way to slow offshore drilling. 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.

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Conservationists say the air guns used in seismic research can damage marine life, causing some animals to be displaced and disrupting the feeding and mating behaviors of others.

But industry officials also point to research showing slim prospects of physical harm to marine life from shooting seismic. For example, during a 2012 study by scientists in San Diego that aimed studying the way marine mammals experience temporary losses in hearing sensitivity, the researchers could not induce the problem after exposing a dolphin to 10 impulses from an air gun.

Federal officials are asking for public comments and plan to hold public meetings all along the Gulf Coast, meant to give local residents and other stakeholders a chance to define the scope of the environmental analysis.

The meeting schedule is below:

  • Tampa, Florida: Monday, June 10, 2013, Embassy Suites Westshore Tampa Airport Hotel, 555 North Westshore Boulevard, Tampa, Florida 33609; at 6:30 p.m. EDT;
  • Fort Walton Beach, Florida: Tuesday, June 11, 2013, Ramada Plaza Beach Resort, 1500 Miracle Strip Parkway, SE, Fort Walton Beach, Florida 32548; at 6:30 p.m. CDT;
  • Mobile, Alabama: Wednesday, June 12, 2013, Government Plaza, 205 Government Street, Mobile, Alabama 36644; at 6:30 p.m. CDT;
  • Gulfport, Mississippi: Thursday, June 13, 2013, Courtyard by Marriott Gulfport Beachfront MS Hotel, 1600 East Beach Boulevard, Gulfport, Mississippi 39501; at 6:30 p.m. CDT;
  • Galveston, Texas: Monday, June 17, 2013, Galveston Hilton, 5400 Seawall Boulevard, Galveston, Texas 77551; at 6:30 p.m. CDT;
  • New Orleans, Louisiana: Wednesday, June 19, 2013, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, 1201 Elmwood Park Boulevard, New Orleans, Louisiana 70123; at 1 p.m. CDT; and
  • Silver Spring, Maryland: Thursday, June 20, 2013, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1305 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, Maryland 20910; at 1:00 p.m. EDT.


To submit written comments:

  • Mail or hand deliver in an envelope labeled “Scoping Comments for the Gulf of Mexico G&G Programmatic EIS,” Mr. Gary D. Goeke, Chief, Regional Assessment Section, Office of Environment (GM 623E), Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Gulf of Mexico OCS Region, 1201 Elmwood Park Boulevard, New Orleans, Louisiana 70123-2394;
  • Through the regulations.gov web portal at http://www.regulations.gov, search for “Geological and Geophysical Exploration Activities on Federal and State Waters of the Gulf of Mexico” (include the quotation marks in your search terms). Click on the “Comment Now!” button and enter your comment, then click “Submit”; or
  • Email to: gomggeis@boem.gov.