Interview: Seismic surveys critical part if the U.S. is to harness its energy potential

Nikki Martin, President at IAGC

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in early August published its final programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS), evaluating the environmental impacts of geological & geophysical surveys on marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico region.

According to the bureau, the EIS establishes a framework for BOEM to guide subsequent National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analyses of site-specific actions while identifying and analyzing appropriate mitigation measures to be used during future G&G activities on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) in support of oil and gas, renewable energy, and marine mineral resource programs.

Using a tiering process based on this programmatic evaluation, BOEM will address the impacts of future site-specific actions in subsequent NEPA evaluations.

The EIS release came as the U.S. President Donald Trump was seeking to expand offshore drilling in federal waters. It was a response to a court-ordered settlement of a lawsuit brought by environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Center for Biological Diversity, Gulf Restoration Network and Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice.

The extensive report was not very well received by environmentalist groups nor by the oil and gas industry. In fact, this was a rare occasion that environmentalists and the oil and gas industry agreed on something, with both sides expressing disappointment by the report’s findings.

Namely, while the oil and gas industry claimed the report was not based on scientific facts and as such it is putting energy exploration at risk, the environmentalists claimed that BOEM did not do enough to protect the marine mammals from the seismic surveys.

According to Earthjustice, a non-profit law organization dedicated to environmental issues, the report outlines possible mitigation measures, including closure areas where seismic blasting would be banned, and reductions in the amount of activity permissible each year.

Earthjustice said that the analysis found that as many as 31.9 million marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico would be injured and harassed by oil and gas seismic surveys. This includes 80 percent of the Gulf’s endangered sperm whale population, estimated at 763 animals. Sperm whales would experience as many as 760,000 harassing exposures to airgun blasting over the next decade.

Commenting on the report, Michael Jasny, director of NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project, said: “To permit seismic testing in view of these troubling findings would be to retreat from conservation.”

“We were hopeful BOEM would opt for safeguarding our marine resources from damage associated with oil and gas development,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network. “Sadly, instead they have once again put the interests of the oil industry ahead of environmental protection.”

On the other hand, the American Petroleum Institute (API) upon the release of the report said that the report failed to take into account extensive industry mitigation efforts and use the best available scientific information in setting new operational measures. The API claimed that the report was based on a “flawed interpretation of scientific data.”

Nikki Martin, President of International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC), commented that the final report put energy exploration at risk with its “overly precautionary analysis” of the effects, unsupported by best available information, thus leading to the proposed alternative which poses non-scientific and unnecessary restrictions on geophysical surveys.

However, that’s as far as they go in agreeing with each other.

In light of this, Offshore Energy Today interviewed the IAGC President, Nikki Martin, to learn more about the report and the industry’s take on it. Martin is the first female President in the association’s 44-year history. The international trade association represents the industry that provides seismic services to the oil and gas industry.


OET: Now that you’ve had some time to review the final programmatic EIS, could you tell us what is your main takeaway from it? 

Martin: “Overall, the EIS states the federal agencies’ (BOEM, BSEE and NMFS) conclusion that continued authorization of seismic and other geophysical surveys in the Gulf of Mexico will not result in major impacts to the environment. But in fact, the best available science and the industry’s record of operations around the world support an even stronger conclusion: there is no documented evidence of geophysical surveys adversely affecting marine life populations, and in the more than 50 years of seismic surveying in the Gulf of Mexico, there has not been a single reported incidence of sound from seismic operations injuring marine life.  

“Regrettably, the agencies disregard this record in the EIS, and instead incite “the spirit of the precautionary principle” which resists decision-making based upon the “best available science” in direct contravention of U.S. law. The EIS’ impact analysis and associated impact estimates remain overly precautionary, presenting a worst-case scenario that does not reflect impacts that are actually expected to occur, which the EIS then addresses with burdensome and unsupported mitigation, specifically, a four-month closure of all state and federal coastal waters, shoreward of the 20-meter isobath, to seismic surveys.”

Martin noted that the first 3D seismic survey in the Gulf of Mexico was acquired in 1976 and since then over one million line-miles of seismic data have been collected, alongside successful fishing and tourism industries, and within a thriving ecosystem abundant with marine life.

“The EIS’ worst-case scenario analyses and conclusions are not supported by fact, science, or law,” Martin said.


‘The EIS unnecessarily restricts survey activity’


OET: Commenting on the EIS, you recently said it puts energy exploration at risk. Could you elaborate on that?

Martin: “The EIS, and the regulatory processes to which it will be directly applicable, are of paramount importance to the future exploration and production of domestic oil and gas reserves in the Gulf of Mexico. Seismic surveying, which has informed a five-fold increase in the estimated recoverable resources in the Gulf, is a critical part of safe offshore energy development that is necessary if the U.S. is to continue to harness its energy potential. By proposing an arbitrary four-month closure of all state and federal coastal waters to seismic surveys, the EIS unnecessarily restricts survey activity and impedes the ability to identify the resources available in this region.

“The seasonal coastal closure is arbitrary and unsupported, and will have significant adverse economic and operational consequences. At a time when BOEM is attempting to incentivize shallow-water Gulf of Mexico production by lowering the royalty rates, it is simultaneously discouraging interest in these prospects by impeding the industry’s and BOEM’s ability to evaluate the resource potential.”

Martin was referring to the bureau’s decision from July to reduce the royalty rate for leases located in water depths less than 200 meters in the Gulf of Mexico Sale 249 from 18.75% to 12.5% to reflect recent market conditions.

She also stressed the BOEM’s claim that the EIS was not the decision document under NEPA and that an alternative selection would be provided in the Record of Decision (ROD), which is expected within next month.

According to Martin, this decision will select the final alternative and scenario under which the agencies will plan to tier subsequent environmental review and decisions regarding geophysical permitting.

“American public favors energy exploration and development.”

When asked if there’s a growing pressure from the public to reduce or even stop the surveys, Martin said it wasn’t the case.

“What we do see is the same groups,” she said. Martin pointed out that research done earlier this year actually showed that the majority of the American public favors energy exploration and development.

“Particularly, in the Gulf of Mexico, public sentiment has remained steadily supportive where the oil and gas industry has successfully co-existed alongside commercial and recreational fishing and a thriving tourism economy for generations.”


Anti-oil & gas groups target G&G industry 


Further speaking about the public sentiment, Martin said: “It is no secret that the anti-oil and gas agenda has targeted the geophysical industry because they see it as a “gateway” to further exploration and development. They believe that if they stop geophysical surveys, they have essentially shut down the oil and gas industry.”

To support the claim that their efforts are clearly aimed solely at the oil and gas industry, the IAGC President noted that geophysical surveys are also used by the National Science Foundation, the USGS, and the offshore wind industry, but those surveys are not met with the same resistance or “erroneous claims of harm.”

The bureau’s push towards more regulations and restrictions in seismic surveys may lead to a conclusion that advancements in technology brought to light new scientific discoveries to support these restrictions. Following a firm no as a response to that, Martin referred to the BOEM’s Science Note from 2014 that stated “there has been no documented scientific evidence of noise from sound sources used in G&G seismic activities adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities.”

The Science Note also said there were no known detrimental impact to marine animal populations or to commercial fishing, she added.

“Any potential effects from seismic surveys to the sustainability of species or stocks have not been demonstrated,” Martin reiterated.

The IAGC head also highlighted a statement made by Dr. William Brown, BOEM’s chief environmental officer, to the National Geographic saying that seismic surveys in the Atlantic OCS should not cause any deaths or injuries to the hearing of marine mammals or sea turtles.

According to Martin, Brown also stated that claims to the contrary were “wildly exaggerated and not supported by the evidence.” Therefore, Martin gathered, the EIS’ precautionary approach is in direct contradiction to the BOEM’s own statements on the record.

“For more than 40 years, the federal government and academic scientists have studied the potential impacts of G&G activities on marine mammal populations and have concluded that any such potential impacts are insignificant. BOEM itself has spent more than $50 million on protected species and noise-related research without finding evidence of adverse effects. The geophysical and oil & gas industries, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Navy, and others have spent a comparable amount on researching impacts of seismic surveys on marine life and have found no evidence of cumulative effects.

“For nearly eight decades, geophysical surveys have been conducted in the GOM, including extensive activity for the past fifty years, and there is no documented scientific evidence of this activity adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities. Data acquisition through seismic surveys are a proven, environmentally sound technology with a track record around the globe that extends for decades. Seismic surveys and geophysical activities help make offshore energy development safer and more efficient.”

“There is a real danger that the Administration’s actions could indeed jeopardize the nation’s energy and national security.”

When it comes to mitigation measures, the bureau prefers Alternative C which, unlike some other alternatives, does not include more restrictive measures like broader closure areas or arbitrary reductions on activity, however, it does recommend an arbitrary four-month closure to all seismic surveys in state and federal coastal waters.

The API, IAGC, and other industry associations requested Alternative A which, in Martin’s words, represents the current mitigation and monitoring measures applied successfully by the industry in the Gulf of Mexico.


OET: Is there, in fact, any danger that current developments will stop or to a certain extent curtail seismic surveys in the Gulf?

Martin: “Yes. There is a real danger that the Administration’s actions could indeed jeopardize the nation’s energy and national security. The EIS is clearly counterproductive to the Administration’s previous Executive and Secretarial Orders that took critical steps to expand offshore production and streamline the seismic surveying process. Today, 94 percent of the nation’s waters are currently off limits. Further reducing that cannot help but compromise the U.S. economy and long-term security.”

Martin pointed out that productivity of the nation’s most productive oil and gas resource, the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, is due in large part to the geophysical surveys used to locate them.

“Ultimately, the consumer is negatively impacted because they will have to pay higher energy costs.

“There are many unleased blocks within the area covered by the coastal closure. Because existing seismic data in these areas is outdated and inadequate to inform decisions regarding future lease sales, the coastal closure will significantly impede industry’s and BOEM’s evaluations of blocks for future lease sales. The coastal closure significantly increases the likelihood that an affected seismic survey will not be completed within its one-year permit term, thereby increasing the overall number of surveys that will need to be conducted, increasing costs, and decreasing overall efficiency.”


OET: What about the economic impacts of these new mitigation measures? Are they feasible?

Martin: “Modern seismic imaging requires an entire aperture to be recorded before imaging can be performed. Essentially, all data for a data project must be gathered as a whole before the final steps are performed to create the data image. This means, in many instances, that surveys within the coastal closure will be terminated early, because of the four-month restriction. If crews are able to move to locations outside of the closure area (which will be difficult for the reasons stated above), it is very unlikely that those projects will last for exactly four months, which means that the delays to surveys in the Coastal Closure area are likely to last for much longer than four months, not including the substantial time required for mobilization and demobilization.  

“Any speculative benefit, which is unsubstantiated, is far outweighed by the operational and economic costs…”

“Moreover, the four closed months are the most productive months in the Gulf of Mexico because the winter storms have ended and the summer tropical storms have not yet begun. Accordingly, the cost to operate in the area covered by the Coastal Closure will be substantially higher than other areas and will result in increased and inefficient survey effort overall.

“Any speculative benefit, which is unsubstantiated, is far outweighed by the operational and economic costs of closing this highly prospective area to surveys. It will result in overall increased survey effort at a much higher cost to operators, and it will hamper the ability of the U.S. to develop nationally strategic natural gas reserves.”


OET: The whole situation affects not only the seismic sector, but the entire oil and gas industry because the surveys are its main tool in discovering resources. What are the long-term implications of these measures on the oil & gas industry?

Martin: “The long-term implications could be damaging for Gulf states and the nation, especially in terms of jobs and energy costs.

“Geophysical surveys are an essential tool in the industry across the exploration and development spectrum. There are numerous environmental benefits of geophysical surveys in the oil and gas industry. The use of geophysical technologies helps improve efficiency and reduce safety and environmental risks. Seismic information is used to accurately plan locations for wells, reducing the probability of drilling dry wells and consequently the need for further drilling, minimizing the environmental footprint of oil and gas exploration.”

OET: As an association representing the seismic services sector, what can you do to alleviate this situation?

“We work on many fronts to educate and inform,” Martin said.

She also added: “We continue to engage government and regulatory entities with credible scientific, technical, and legal analysis to both protect the environment and develop essential energy supplies. We also facilitate continuous improvement and promotion of health, safety, security, and environment, social responsibility, technological innovation and operations.

“This Administration should make its decisions based on credible science…”

“Additionally, we also work to educate stakeholders, the public about our operations and try to correct the proliferation of misinformation that is disseminated by extreme anti-oil and gas environmental groups.

“In the end, this Administration should make its decisions based on credible science and not on supposition of what might or could occur but has not in more than eight decades of seismic survey activity around the world.”

Although the seismic market has proved to be quite unpredictable, we asked for Martin’s take on the timing of the seismic sector recovery. In her response, Martin admitted no one knows what the future holds for the oil services market or the geophysical industry. However, she added with certainty, the global energy demand will increase. The 30% growth is predicted in the next 20 years and that demand simply cannot be met without the geophysical industry, she said.

In the end, Martin concluded that, as energy demand continues, so will demand for seismic and other geophysical surveys to locate the safest and most efficient locations for energy exploration and production.

“For this reason, energy policies must ensure continued access for geophysical exploration in order to be sustainable.”

Interview prepared by Nermina Kulović, Editor at Offshore Energy Today

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