A Thousand Days Later, Why Is NOAA Still Dithering On Allowing Seismic Surveys?
By Nikki Martin and Randall Luthi
It has been more than a thousand days since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries accepted as "final and complete" the Incidental Harassment Authorization, or IHA, applications needed to take seismic surveys off the Atlantic Coast.
Considering that the Marine Mammal Protection Act, or MMPA, requires agencies to issue decisions within 120 days after deeming IHA applications complete, this delay is a shocking policy failure.
The failure to issue decisions on these authorizations impedes the collection of modern Atlantic seismic data – information that would be used to update resource estimates critical to a fully informed public debate over Atlantic energy development.
This inexplicable delay is a complete bureaucratic breakdown by federal agencies in what should be an otherwise straightforward process. “Approve or deny” is simple and clear. Each day of delay reinforces the Government Accountability Office’s January report documenting NOAA’s derelictions, which identifies numerous and unjustifiable administrative failures that have contributed to the current quagmire surrounding the authorization of seismic surveys in the Atlantic.
The MMPA was enacted in 1972 to address significant declines in some marine mammal species caused by human activities, such as overhunting, overfishing, and unscrupulous trade. The history of marine mammals since then has largely been a long list of successes: the recovery of California sea lions and elephant seals from near-extinction, the removal of gray whales and humpback whales from the endangered species list, the end of massive losses of pelagic dolphins in the tuna purse seine fishery, and more.
These post-MMPA successes have taken place during continuous use of seismic surveys around the world. Furthermore, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and NOAA Fisheries have stated time and again and throughout changing administrations that “there has been no documented scientific evidence of noise from acoustic sources used in seismic activities adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities.”
Decades of regulation and litigation, and now 1,000 days of agency inaction in the Atlantic, have exposed significant flaws in the MMPA. It is clear that the law is no longer equipped to meet the needs of the 21st century, nor does it provide assurance of agency accountability regarding statutory timelines and processes that are predictable and unbiased.
Others are now joining industry’s call for reform. In recent testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, Chris Oliver, NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, submitted a series of recommendations that are intended to streamline the administration of IHA permits.
A change in NOAA policy is clearly needed, but it may not be an enduring fix. That is why the International Association of Geophysical Contractors and the National Ocean Industries Association fully support the passage of the SEA Act and the SECURE Act to modernize the MMPA.
The legislation pending before the U.S. House aims to accomplish what is a reasonable expectation of a federal regulatory program: transparent standards, efficient processes, elimination of redundancies, and firm timelines adhering to the statute. These bills will also provide regulatory stability for other offshore activities such as marine research programs, infrastructure projects, and coastal restoration efforts. They will not, as has been suggested, eliminate mitigation requirements or reduce protections for marine mammals, nor do they propose to fast-track the permitting process for seismic surveys or offshore oil exploration. Indeed, the only basis for opposing these bills would be antagonism towards efficient federal processes or a desire for continued ambiguities and inefficiencies that create opportunities for delay and litigation.
America's offshore energy potential has been undermined by bureaucratic dysfunction in the processes surrounding seismic survey applications. Without changes to the MMPA to create accountability, clear standards, and firm timelines, NOAA Fisheries will continue to be paralyzed by controversy and fail to meet its statutory obligations. Congress has a responsibility to take action, and these bills will provide the regulatory certainty for America’s offshore energy future.
Nikki Martin is the President of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors , or IAGC, which represents seismic contractors globally. Randall Luthi is the President of the National Ocean Industries Association, or NOIA, which represents companies with an interest in the exploration and production of traditional and renewable energy resources on the nation’s outer continental shelf.