From Alaska to the South to leading an energy industry group Published: Friday, July 14, 2017
Nikki Martin is the president of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors. Western Resources Legal Center
Nikki Martin is not the typical oil and gas industry trade association executive. The 34-year-old Alaskan leads the Houston-based International Association of Geophysical Contractors, making her the first female president in the group's history.
The organization, which represents more than 100 members involved in geophysical surveying, mapping and gathering seismic data, is the "cornerstone of the modern energy industry," said Martin, a former regulatory and legal manager at the Alaska Oil and Gas Association with a background in environment and energy law.
It's certainly an interesting time for the industry, given the shifting debate over offshore drilling, which has gathered more steam with President Trump's April executive order reversing an Obama administration ban on drilling in much of the Arctic Ocean and opening the door for the Interior Department to allow new offshore oil and gas leasing in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.
That order also directed a more streamlined permitting process for privately funded seismic data collection in those areas to gauge the offshore energy resource potential there.
Martin, a former aide to the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), talked with E&E News recently about the geophysical industry's importance to energy exploration and development, her dream job, and her fondness for Southern cooking.
What issues are on IAGC's radar screen right now?
The geophysical industry is really a very technical, innovative industry, but at the very basis of it, we're the cornerstone of the modern energy industry — and that means oil and gas, [as well as] viable alternative energy. We are interested in closely following some of the recent executive orders and secretarial orders that have made seismic surveys in geophysical industries a prominent part of their [the administration's] overall interest in developing a sound energy policy.
One of the issues we've been very closely tracking is the Atlantic offshore access issue. We're looking at proposing the permitting of seismic surveys for oil and gas, so that's been, obviously, a very public debate. We have been assisting our members navigate what has become a very complex regulatory process ... some of our members originally requested their permits back in 2010.
Is that permitting process through Interior or NOAA?
Both. That's part of the reason it is so complex. Interior, through the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, of course, they have the final say in the actual permitting of the activity, and then [there's] the environmental review process through the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. The Marine Mammal Protection Act process has really been one of the most complicated [parts] of the process.
Is that because of the arguments of some that seismic activity harms animals and their habitat, and adversely affects migratory patterns?
Yes. So there's a lot of statements that have been made, a lot of assertions on both sides during this debate. I think overall, the Marine Mammal Protection Act has successfully operated for many, many years permitting oil and gas exploration activities, including geophysical surveys in offshore Alaska. We stand by the fact that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and NOAA Fisheries have repeatedly stated on the record, regardless of the political administration, that there has been no evidence of impact from seismic surveys affecting marine mammal populations or marine life populations, and that includes fisheries. So that's the fact. That's the record, and that's one of the things I love most about regulatory policy and environmental regulation. Regardless of which side of the debate you may be on, at the end of the day, there shouldn't be a side beyond the best available science. That record should stand for itself.
It sounds like that issue is something that frustrates you about the debate.
Yeah. I think any time you're looking at an industry group, whether it's the geophysical industry, or another segment of oil and gas, or the ranching community, or fishing community, we're all looking for regulatory [certainty]. These environmental statutes were developed for good reason. They suggest for appropriate safeguards. But if they're not followed, and the agencies can't carry them out under a timely process and look at the practicality of them and ensure the best available science is determining the ultimate decisions, there begins to be a lot of uncertainty within the regulated community. And that causes concern regarding timelines. It's hard to plan your business. That's really, at the end of the day, what we're asking for, and what we're looking for, for our members — some sense of regulatory certainty.
I think there are more opportunities to look at modernizing some of these environmental statues. This is personally a Nikki Martin opinion, with my background and interest in the policy side of things and environmental regulations: Environmental statutes [like MMPA] should be creating positive, meaningful, environmental impact, environmental benefit for wildlife and conservation. It should not be used to solve development activities without any corresponding impacts. I think that's when you need to take a more critical look at how we can update these statutes to ensure their actual original intent is being carried out by the agencies, by the regulated community and by interested stakeholders.
Where are you from originally?
I grew up in Alaska, and then I went to college in South Carolina [University of South Carolina]. I worked in D.C., and then went to law school at Lewis and Clark [College] in Portland, Ore.
You've lived in a lot of different places!
Yeah, yeah. Alaska has been, by far, the best. I love Houston, Texas, but I attribute my interest in this area of law and public policy to growing up in Alaska. One thing I really love about that state is the great appreciation that everybody from there, who lives there, has of the outdoors, of the environment, of natural resources, and it's multi-use, right? Nobody is saying one is at the exclusion of the other.
So what was it like to go from Alaska to South Carolina for college? I mean, that's like two or more culture shocks at once.
Yeah, that's exactly the term that I use. I loved it. I was recruited for running, long-distance running. I never thought or imagined I would venture that far from home, but I took the recruiting trip in the middle of winter. I had shrimp, grits and fried green tomatoes, and that was it.
Texas vs. Carolina barbecue. Where do you stand?
Oh, I don't know. Texas barbecue. I'm going to be safe and say nothing is better than my husband's barbecue on the Big Green Egg [cooker].
Do you still run?
I do. I would say much more casually or occasionally. My main hobby now is being a first-time mom. I have a 1 ½ year old.
What is your dream job?
I'm in my dream job. I love representing this industry. Trade associations are a lot of fun because you're not concerned about just one company's interests. You're getting to balance lots of companies' interests and overall advocate on behalf of an industry. I just love that I get to raise the visibility of this very technical, little-known industry and make it visible, make it impactful, and make sure the world understands and knows what value we bring.