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OCS Seismic Surveys Pass First Senate Hurdle–And Come Packaged with Biological Inventory

Seismic Surveys, Shipping Add comments

Conservationist fears that the end is neigh for the decades-long moratorium on oil and gas exploration off most of America’s coastlines were ratcheted up this month by the passage of the American Clean Energy Leadership Act in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  While Senate Democrats highlight the alternative energy elements in the bill, the oil and gas industry is clearly focused on the openings for new offshore development that it contains. The bill now moves to the full Senate for consideration; floor action has not yet been scheduled. The bill contains lots of eco-good stuff (including a ban on US import of Canadian oil sands product), along with the long-dreaded “inventory” of the Outer Continental Shelf’s oil and gas potential.  For much of the US east coast, no modern seismic surveys have taken place; what data exists is largely from the 1970’s, at much lower resolution than is now possible.  There are many steps between this bill and any actual offshore oil development (even if it passes the House and Senate with the OCS survey provision in place, there is still a need for funding for the surveys, and a full Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement process that has yet to begin), but for an increasingly vocal contingent of activists, the proposed seismic surveys will be a line in the sand.  AEI certainly shares the concerns of many others about the effects of survey noise on wildlife (see this recent AEI presentation to a Canadian government advisory meeting, focusing on questions about surveys disrupting foraging activity).  Six different geophysical contractors have proposed seismic surveys off the Atlantic coast; the Minerals Management Service Atlantic Seismic PEIS website has links to maps of these proposals, which span most of the east coast and include a huge amount of overlap.  At the very least, data sharing should be required, in order to minimize duplication of this extremely noisy activity.

However, it is also worth noting that the OCS inventory that is called for in the current Senate bill includes not just oil and gas resources, but also an assessment of potential for wind, wave, and other alternative energy development, fisheries, habitat and conservation, and military use.  I am particularly struck by the provision to assess habitat and conservation values in the OCS: this is exactly the sort of regional overview that could provide the data needed to do real ecosystem-based management of all offshore activities.  Such a comprehensive assessment would identify key habitat (seasonal or permanent) that needs protection from military training activities and increased shipping, including LNG terminals.  The fisheries inventory could also serve to constrain the extent of seismic survey activity, especially for fisheries with depleted stocks and active fishermen associations (both of which are widespread on the east coast).  It may still be possible to strike the whole idea of further oil and gas development from the energy bill; we may be close to the societal tipping point where we are ready to acknowledge that new sources of CO2 simply cannot be tolerated.  The Chairman of the House Natural Resources committee, Nick Rahall, points out that “even the American Petroleum Institute’s most optimistic projections – a best-case scenario extrapolation, requiring that the entire OCS be made available – would, in 2030, provide no more than 5% of our total daily energy needs, and displace only 8% of our oil imports. These are large volumes of oil, to be sure, but they comprise less than half the impact of the increase in fuel efficiency standards that Congress passed just over a year ago.”  Rahall’s committee has held three hearings on oil development in the OCS, and is the gateway for House consideration of a companion to the bill now moving through the Senate. Still, it may not be politically feasible to preclude OCS development outright at this point.  The potential for a comprehensive inventory of offshore resources, including habitat, conservation, and fisheries, may turn out to be well worth the trade-off of allowing the idea of seismic surveys to stay alive for a bit longer.  It’s highly likely that the results of any such comprehensive inventory will constrain survey operations, perhaps even to the point that the industry itself finds the oil and gas horizons too limited to be worth pursuing.

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