Witnesses offer differing views of Mid-Atlantic OCS G&G work

Resumption of oil and gas geological and geophysical (G&G) data gathering on the US Mid-Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf after more than 30 years would help advance scientific knowledge as well as identify and determine the value of potential resources there, US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Acting Director Walter D. Cruikshank told one US House Natural Resources (HNR) subcommittee on Mar. 6.

Mar 8th, 2019

Resumption of oil and gas geological and geophysical (G&G) data gathering on the US Mid-Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf after more than 30 years would help advance scientific knowledge as well as identify and determine the value of potential resources there, US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Acting Director Walter D. Cruikshank told one US House Natural Resources (HNR) subcommittee on Mar. 6.

It also would pose serious threats to an already declining right whale population in the area, two other witnesses testified in another HNR subcommittee’s hearing the following day. “The authorized seismic surveys would reduce fitness in these already health-compromised animals, reducing survival and reproduction and pushing the population increasingly toward extinction,” said Scott Kraus, the chief scientist for marine mammal conservation at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life in Boston.

BOEM’s 2014 record of decision for the programmatic environmental impact statement for Atlantic G&G activity off the US Mid-Atlantic coast established stringent mitigation measures, Cruickshank said to the Energy and Mineral Resources subcommittee in his written testimony.

“There are currently nine permit applications pending for G&G activities related to oil and gas in the Atlantic, ranging from aerial magnetic and gravity surveys to deep penetration seismic surveys,” Cruickshank said. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Fisheries Service issued incidental harassment authorizations (IHA) to five offshore geophysical contractors on Nov. 30 after several years of delays (OGJ Online, Nov. 30, 2018).

“Any decision to approve G&G activities does not authorize leasing for oil and gas in any area of the Atlantic,” Cruickshank said. “Leasing decisions will be addressed through the National OCS Program and the decision to lease a particular area would be done at the lease sale stage, which comes after approval of the National OCS Program.”

Unacceptable consequences

But witnesses at the Water, Oceans, and Wildlife subcommittee’s Mar. 7 hearing argued that environmental consequences from resumed oil and gas seismic work on the Mid-Atlantic OCS would create unacceptable environmental consequences.

“The authorized seismic surveys will involve multiple vessels operating simultaneously, each for periods of months, producing chronic noise that will propagate hundreds of kilometers and raise ambient noise levels throughout right whale habitat,” Kraus said in his testimony. “Since shipping noise demonstrably increases the stress response in right whales, it is likely that constant exposure to seismic air gun noise, which is much louder than ship noise, will increase chronic stress in this species.

A second witness, Christopher W. Clark, a senior scientist and research professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, noted, “Explosions from seismic air gun surveys have been recorded throughout the oceans, which is not surprising because the acoustic energy is so high and the frequency content so low. As scientists we are still in the process of understanding the long-term, large-scale, chronic, biological consequences of these surveys.”

Clark urged committee members to consider as evidence for concern that a 2018 study found that right whale populations in the southern hemisphere for which population data are available are increasing while those in the North Atlantic Ocean are not.

“There are now years in which more calves are born into the population of right whales off the western South Atlantic than there are in the total population of right whales in the North Atlantic Ocean,” Clark said. “One very obvious difference between the regions in which these two populations occur is the level of commercial activities that influence the very-low-frequency marine acoustic environment; namely, the levels of anthropogenic noise from shipping traffic and seismic air gun surveys.

Specific mitigation measures

A third witness provided more details about the mitigation measures that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) included when it issued the IHAs. “After extensive analysis, NMFS developed rigorous mitigation, monitoring, and reporting requirements for the proposed Atlantic geophysical surveys,” Chris Oliver, NOAA’s assistant administrator for fisheries, told the subcommittee.

“For North Atlantic right whales, we specified measures that limit activities in areas where they are expected to be present, including all designated critical habitat and additional seasonal management areas throughout the survey area,” Oliver said in his testimony. “Specifically, the mitigation area restricts seismic operation within 90 km of the coast from November through April. Seismic operations are also required to be suspended if North Atlantic right whales are detected at an extended shutdown distance within 1½ km of the vessel.”

In response to a question from Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), Oliver said he did not believe NMFS has ever not approved a request from an applicant for an IHA in either the Obama or Trump administration. “I would note that the prevailing scientific information is that seismic activity does not result in mortality or even serious injury. I would acknowledge there are other sublethal effects,” he said.

Oliver said the IHAs’ mitigation measures, including a 90-km closure as well as year-round multiple critical calving habit closures, are significant and collectively satisfy standards NMFS is required to consider under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act.

After Rep. Jefferson Van Drew (D-NJ) asked how the federal government would respond if Atlantic commercial fishing catches dropped in the wake of oil and gas seismic surveys, Oliver said he was not aware of any specific evidence that indicates the proposed seismic activity would have a direct effect on catch rates.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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