BOEM denies G&G permit applications for South and Mid-Atlantic OCS

Jan. 16, 2017
The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has denied six pending applications to conduct offshore oil and gas geological and geophysical (G&G) surveys on the US South and Mid-Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf. 

The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has denied six pending applications to conduct offshore oil and gas geological and geophysical (G&G) surveys on the US South and Mid-Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf. The Jan. 6 move came more than 4 years after BOEM set the stage for what would have been the first seismic evaluation of potential oil and gas resources there in more than 30 years (OGJ Online, Mar. 28, 2012).

Officials from several oil and gas associations were outraged. "Most of the seismic data for the Atlantic OCS is more than 3 decades old," said National Ocean Industries Association Pres. Randall B. Luthi. "With this decision, BOEM seems determined to make sure it remains that way, keeping Americans in the dark for the foreseeable future about the true potential of valuable offshore oil and gas resources that belong to us all."

Nikki Martin, president of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC) in Houston, said, "Today's announcement demonstrates the [Obama] administration's continued lack of accountability to the American people. It is also one of the many recent and rushed attempts to cater to extreme environmentalists in the last days of the administration, substituting politics for science."

BOEM said the decision was based on several factors, including "a diminished need for seismic survey information" after the US Department of the Interior removed a lease sale off Virginia's coast, which was the only one scheduled off the US Atlantic coast in the proposed 2017-22 OCS leasing program (OGJ Online, Mar. 13, 2016).

"In the present circumstances and guided by an abundance of caution, we believe that the value of obtaining the [G&G] information from new airgun seismic surveys in the Atlantic does not outweigh the potential risks of those surveys' acoustic pulse impacts on marine life," BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper said. "Since federal waters in the South and Mid-Atlantic have been removed from leasing consideration for the next 5 years, there is no immediate need for these surveys."

BOEM said it was possible that fresh seismic information would not be used if Atlantic tracts are not offered in the future. US President Barack Obama included the OCS from New England to Virginia into permanent withdrawals from future offshore oil and gas activity that he announced toward yearend 2016 (OGJ Online, Dec. 20, 2016).

Other considerations

New Atlantic offshore seismic data may become outdated if leasing is far in the future, and the probable development of lower-impact survey technology before future G&G information would be needed, BOEM added. The decision affects only the six permit applications for seismic survey proposed for oil and gas exploration deep beneath the ocean floor, it said.

"Deep penetration seismic surveys are conducted by vessels towing an array of airguns that emit acoustic energy pulses into the seafloor over long durations and large areas," the agency said. "Seismic airguns can penetrate several thousand meters beneath the seafloor. Surveys for other, shallow depth purposes typically do not use airguns. While surveys may have some impacts to marine life, airgun seismic surveys have the potential for greater impacts."

Oceana, which opposes any offshore oil and gas activity and has alleged for years that seismic surveys on the Atlantic OCS pose unacceptable potential hazards to marine life there, praised BOEM's move. "With offshore drilling off the table for the near future, there was absolutely no reason to risk the damage that would be caused by seismic airgun blasting in the region," Atlantic Campaign Director Claire Douglas said.

American Petroleum Institute Upstream and Industry Operations Director Erik Milito disagreed. "It's clear that this is a politically driven decision that flies in the face of the best available science. As BOEM has reiterated a number of times previously, seismic surveys are a safe, efficient, and scientifically proven way to find potential new sources of energy," he said.

"Additionally this is a decision that, at its core, denies the opportunity for private industry to conduct scientific, geologic research that will be used by academia, government, and industry alike for important educational and research purposes," Milito said.

Consulted other agencies

Tommy P. Beaudreau, who was BOEM's director in March 2012 when the agency released a draft programmatic environmental impact statement for the first seismic evaluation of potential oil and gas resources off the South and Mid-Atlantic coasts in more than 30 years, said at the time that the agency would work closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has extensive experience studying impacts of human activity on marine mammals, and consult with the US Fish and Wildlife Service about possible species effects.

The process unaccountably had stalled by early 2016, reportedly because some of these other federal agencies had not acted. IAGC Executive Vice-Pres. Walt Rosenbusch said that geophysical contractors who want to go to work the Atlantic coast were still awaiting incidental take authorizations from NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (OGJ Online, Mar. 14, 2016).

"We hope the authorizations will be issued sometime this month, or at least this spring," Rosenbusch said. "All of the applicants already have received [Coastal Zone Management Act consistency] authorizations from the states near where they would be working." NMFS reviews that normally take 9 months have gone on for more than 18 months and could take up to 2 years, he said.

The ITAs might include conditions, but geophysical activity for other purposes has been taking place on the Atlantic OCS for years, he noted. "This is not new activity in the Atlantic. It's confusing that these NMFS authorizations have taken this long," Rosenbusch said in March 2016. NMFS officials did not respond to OGJ's requests for more information.

"Seismic survey's proposed for the Atlantic would provide policymakers a greater understanding of the resources available offshore," IAGC's Martin said. "A short-sighted decision to preclude the surveys flies in the face of long-term energy development policy, national security, and the entire nation's economic well-being. As the US and the world look to meet growing energy demand, today's announcement certainly does not take that into account."

BOEM's decision makes it all the more pertinent that the incoming Trump administration work to undo BOEM's unprecedented decision and other failed Obama administration energy policies, Martin said.

About the Author

Nick Snow

NICK SNOW covered oil and gas in Washington for more than 30 years. He worked in several capacities for The Oil Daily and was founding editor of Petroleum Finance Week before joining OGJ as its Washington correspondent in September 2005 and becoming its full-time Washington editor in October 2007. He retired from OGJ in January 2020.