U.S. denies seismic permits in Atlantic

Illustration. Image source: International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC)

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) on Friday announced the denial of six pending geophysical and geological (G&G) permit applications to conduct airgun seismic surveys in the Mid- and South Atlantic Planning Areas of the Atlantic Ocean.  

The bureau said on Friday that the decision was based on a number of factors, including a diminished need for additional seismic survey information because the Atlantic Program Area was removed from the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program by the outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama in December.

Prior to the withdrawal of the Arctic and the Atlantic Ocean from future oil and gas activity in December, fifty five members of the U.S. Congress in June sent a letter to President Obama requesting a halt to the permitting process for potential seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean.

“In the present circumstances and guided by an abundance of caution, we believe that the value of obtaining the geophysical and geological information from new airgun seismic surveys in the Atlantic does not outweigh the potential risks of those surveys’ acoustic pulse impacts on marine life,” said BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper.

“Since federal waters in the Mid and South Atlantic have been removed from leasing consideration for the next five years, there is no immediate need for these surveys.”

The bureau also said that additional factors leading to its decision to deny the six permits included the possibility that the information would not be used, if the Atlantic was not offered for future oil and gas leasing; the acquired data might become outdated if leasing was far in the future; and the probable development of lower impact survey technology before future geophysical and geological information would be needed.


Airgun surveys only


BOEM said that this decision only impacts the six permit applications for the use of airgun seismic surveys that were proposed for oil and gas exploration deep beneath the ocean floor. The goal of geological and geophysical surveys is to produce maps or models that indicate the earth’s geography, stratigraphy, rock distribution and geological structure delineation.

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. 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,” BOEM concluded.


Decision slammed


The decision was slammed by a number of organizations in the U.S. In response to the bureau’s decision to deny the seismic permits in the Atlantic, the President of International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC), Nikki Martin, said on Friday: “Today’s announcement from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) denying the permits for Atlantic G&G permits demonstrates the Administration’s continued lack of accountability to the American people. It is also one of many recent and rushed attempts to cater to extreme environmentalists in the last days of the Administration, substituting politics for science.

“Further, today’s unprecedented denial contradicts what BOEM has repeatedly stated: that there is no scientific evidence that sound from seismic survey activity impacts marine life, nor does it harm the environment. Rather, it appears the White House directed BOEM to refute the best available science in favor of a precautionary approach with no basis in U.S. law.”

The association also called the decision “short-sighted” claiming it flies in the face of long-term energy development policy.

Martin concluded: “Today’s decision makes it all the more pertinent that the incoming Trump Administration works to undo the Obama Administration’s failed energy policies, including today’s unprecedented decision. We look forward to working with the new Administration and Congress.”


‘Politically driven’


In addition, the American Petroleum Institute (API) said BOEM’s decision contradicts science. API Director of Upstream and Industry Operations Erik Milito stated on Friday: “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.

“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.

He also expressed hopes that the new administration will reverse this decision.

Furthermore, another association slammed BOEM’s denial of the seismic permits. The President of National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA), Randall Luthi, said on Friday: “This decision continues the Obama administration’s dismissal of scientifically-backed offshore policies and ignores the fact that seismic and other geophysical surveys have been safely conducted offshore in the U.S. and around the world for more than 50 years.”

Luthi also added: “Most of the seismic data for the Atlantic OCS is more than three decades old, and 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.”


‘No reason for testing’


However, not everyone is against the decision to deny the permits. An ocean conservation group, Oceana, applauded Obama Administration’s latest move. Oceana’s campaign director Claire Douglass stated: “Today, we thank the Obama administration for finishing the job in protecting the Atlantic Ocean from offshore drilling activities.”

Douglass also said: “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.

Douglass noted that the government’s own estimates state that seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic could injure as many as 138,000 marine mammals like dolphins and whales, while disturbing the vital activities of millions more.

Offshore Energy Today Staff

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