Published: Monday, August 14, 2017
[+] Last week the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management released its environmental assessment of geophysical survey techniques for oil and gas exploration and their impacts on the Gulf of Mexico's wildlife. Both industry and environmental groups are unhappy with BOEM's conclusions. BOEM
New rules for seismic surveys in the Gulf of Mexico are almost out, but few are happy with the government's proposals.
Industry groups say they'll continue to press for fewer restrictions, while environmentalists ponder taking the government back to court over the row.
Last week the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management issued its final programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) concerning geophysical exploration for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico. Sending sound to penetrate the depths of the ocean floor is one of the first steps for oil and gas companies searching for new hydrocarbon riches in one of the busiest offshore oil patches on the globe.
The multi-volume PEIS has been posted to BOEM's website.
BOEM generally concluded that allowing more seismic testing in the Gulf poses minimal risk to marine habitats (E&E News PM, Aug. 8). Still, some restrictions on when and where exploration can occur are recommended.
But BOEM's proposals don't go far enough in protecting marine life, said Michael Jasny, director of the marine mammal protection program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He said the newest final PEIS issued last week is a slap in the face to environmental groups who have been working with regulators ever since a 2013 court settlement launched the environmental review.
"It's a stark retreat from conservation," said Jasny, arguing that adopting PEIS recommendations as final rules would see ocean energy regulators "turn their back on Gulf wildlife."
Jasny said NRDC is concerned about Bryde's whales, a small number of which call the De Soto Canyon in the Gulf home. He said there is evidence that oil and gas activity, in particular the noise generated from seismic testing, has narrowed the range of the whale, threatening its extinction. NOAA puts the number of Bryde's whales in the Gulf at less than 100 individuals.
Industry representatives say they are also unhappy with BOEM's PEIS.
The International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC) complained that recommended restrictions are unscientific and that the PEIS "puts energy exploration at risk."
Among the recommendations, BOEM suggests keeping segments of state and federal Gulf waters off limits to seismic survey vessels for up to four months of the year. In a release, IAGC President Nikki Martin blasted that specific proposal.
"An arbitrary 4-month near-shore closure in all coastal waters, including state waters, has no scientific merit or environmental benefit and should be precluded from the BOEM's Record of Decision," Martin said.
Martin accuses the agency of bowing "to the political pressure of the anti-oil and gas agenda which refuses to look at the long-standing history of environmentally safe seismic operations in the Gulf of Mexico." The Gulf of Mexico is simultaneously a major source of oil and natural gas and the largest source of seafood in the U.S.
But while the industry wants fewer restrictions, environmental groups active in the dispute want more. Jasny said his coalition of organizations could take the government back to court if they feel the final outcome doesn't match the aims of the 2013 settlement. He called proposals such as the four-month closure "lipstick on a pig."
In an interview last week in Houston, Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA), tried to forge a middle ground in this debate.
"They basically said, as I said earlier, there is no proven harm to commercial fishing, to marine mammals," he said of BOEM'S impact statement. "However, that doesn't mean there won't be some limitations such as when in a year you'll be allowed to do it. You might want to avoid dolphin calving times. There might be specific areas where you are limited."
Still, he agreed with BOEM's contention that many of the existing mitigation efforts in place are adequate to protect the Gulf's species. "Already you are required to have marine mammal observers on the ships," he noted.
Luthi said NOIA expects a final decision to be out within a month. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org