Feds unveil study paving way for oil and gas research in Atlantic

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Thursday is setting the framework for a new generation of oil and gas research off the East Coast — and potential drilling in those Atlantic waters a decade from now — by releasing an environmental study of seismic surveys to pinpoint those energy resources.

The long-awaited analysis from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management examines the potential damage to whales, dolphins and other marine life from those possible seismic surveys and the air gun blasts used to conduct them.

It also outlines an array of potential safeguards the government could require of geophysical research firms to help protect marine life when surveys are underway:

  • Closing access to the migratory routes of the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
  • Prohibiting multiple seismic surveys from being conducted simultaneously.
  • Using passive acoustic monitoring systems — in addition to human observers — to identify marine mammals that are in the area during air gun surveys.

“We’re really going to require and demand a high level of environmental performance from any operator seeking to conduct surveys in these areas,” Bureau Director Tommy Beaudreau told reporters Thursday. “They’re really going to have to up their game and use these technologies to avoid potential conflict and environmental impact.”

Oil and gas industry representatives are skeptical of some proposals to suspend air gun blasts when whales and dolphins are sighted, which could require contracted seismic vessels to spend hours repositioning.

Industry officials also warn about relying too heavily on passive acoustic monitoring systems that can produce false positives and mistakenly warn about nearby animals. Shutting down operations in response — without getting corroboration from human observers — could be costly, they say.

The public will have until April 7 to comment on the study, before the ocean energy bureau issues a final “record of decision” formalizing the agency’s approach.

Assessing seismic permits

The environmental assessment does not explicitly approve or deny any seismic studies in the mid- and south-Atlantic or the applications from at least nine firms to conduct them. But it does help dictate how the ocean energy bureau would assess seismic permit applications, which also would be subjected to individual, site-specific environmental reviews.

Beaudreau stressed that the agency can use those additional, site-specific studies to “incorporate any significant new information” that comes out after the broader analysis.

“Our scientific knowledge of the Atlantic Ocean is constantly building,” he said, “and new information and analyses will continue to be developed over time.”

Environmentalists’ concerns

Beaudreau’s comments were aimed at criticism from marine biologists, scientists and some lawmakers insisting the bureau should have waited for a separate federal agency to finalize new guidelines on how much sound marine mammals can tolerate.

The ocean energy bureau said it consulted with the agency developing those acoustic guidelines, the National Marine Fisheries Service, as it completed the latest assessment, following an initial draft released in March 2012.

Beaudreau insisted the broad review reflected the bureau’s “commitment to balancing the need for understanding offshore energy resources with the protection of the human and marine environment using the best available science.”

Tapping Atlantic resources

Oil and gas industry officials say the document is critical to getting a better look at the potential resources lurking underneath the Atlantic seafloor, in anticipation that the government could sell drilling rights in the region as early as 2017.

Randall Luthi, head of the National Ocean Industries Association, stressed that the environmental review is a vital, early step toward determining whether to open up new Atlantic areas to drilling under the next five-year lease plan spanning 2017-2022.

“Seismic surveys have (long) been a tried and true method for making informed, environmentally sound decisions with regard to oil and gas leasing,” Luthi said. “The (analysis) appears to move us closer to using this same scientifically guided process in the Atlantic and eventually realizing its remarkable potential.”

Environmentalists fretted that the report’s release moves the U.S. closer to offshore drilling from Delaware to Florida. Athan Manuel, director of lands protection for the Sierra Club, said the Obama administration was making “a poor decision” in “opening the door to drilling off the Atlantic Coast.”

The last wave of Atlantic seismic studies were conducted three decades ago, before technological advances that allow better imaging of underground geology.

Video: New waves of seismic technology yield big oil finds

Seismic research is generally conducted with compressed air guns that produce loud, periodic blasts underwater. After the sound waves penetrate the seafloor and bounce back, they are captured by long arrays of sensors towed behind seismic vessels. The resulting data is used to produce detailed, three-dimensional maps that reveal underground geological features and potential reservoirs.

Erik Milito, upstream director with the American Petroleum Institute, emphasized that the sophisticated modeling can help companies target drilling into the most likely prospects — reducing the risks of boring wells that yield nothing.

“In many cases, these maps allow companies to rule out prospects that would have been drilled in the past,” he told reporters Thursday. “This eliminates costly dry wells and reduces the environmental footprint of offshore drilling.”

But 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.

“Seismic airguns create one of the loudest manmade sounds in the ocean, and we should be doing everything we can to protect marine life from their loud blasts,” said Jacqueline Savitz, a vice president with the conservation group Oceana.