The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Safe Testing Advances U.S. Offshore Energy

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted October 19, 2016

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has scheduled a series of public hearings next month on a draft environmental impact statement covering the potential impacts of offshore seismic testing used in oil and natural gas exploration on marine mammals and coastal environments. We’ve posted on the safety of seismic testing (see here and here) and its role in helping unlock America’s vast offshore energy resources. Americans support access to energy reserves, including those offshore. Recently, Andy Radford, senior policy advisor, held a conference call with reporters to discuss the importance of safe seismic testing and offshore energy to America’s economic and energy security. His prepared remarks follow.


All of my remarks here today – about Gulf of Mexico access and draft regulations from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management – are based on the fact that seismic surveys are a proven, environmentally sound technology with a track record that extends for decades. Seismic surveys help make offshore energy development safer and more efficient. They are essential in the U.S. and around the world to locate potential new sources of energy.

Advances in seismic imaging technology and data processing over the last decade have dramatically improved the industry’s ability to locate oil and natural gas offshore. And those energy sources – especially in the Gulf – can be harnessed to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, help American consumers and strengthen our national energy security.

Continuing to perform seismic surveys will produce known discoveries more efficiently and will help uncover new oil and natural gas resources in the Gulf. This will allow people to make informed decisions about the potential for continued job creation and economic growth from offshore energy production in the Gulf of Mexico.

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As history has shown time and time again, exploration and development activities generally lead to increased resource estimates. For example, in 1987 the Minerals Management Service estimated 9.57 billion barrels of recoverable oil resources in the Gulf of Mexico. With more recent seismic data acquisition and additional exploratory drilling, and technological advances that estimate rose in 2011 to 48.4 billion barrels of oil — a fivefold increase.

Additionally, a rigorous environmental analysis and permitting process ensures that seismic surveys are properly managed and conducted so they have minimal impact on the marine environment. There is no evidence that the sound produced by exploring for oil and gas with seismic surveys has resulted in any physical or auditory injury to a marine mammal or impacted marine mammal populations in the Gulf of Mexico.

In fact, marine life and commercial fishing have thrived in the Gulf of Mexico for more than 30 years.

According to BOEM’s chief environmental officer Dr. William Brown, seismic surveys are frequently used in the Gulf of Mexico with no known detrimental impact to marine animal populations or to commercial fishing. In BOEM’s own words, “there has been no documented scientific evidence of noise from air guns used in geological and geophysical (G&G) seismic activities adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities.”

And in addition to the oil and natural gas industry, seismic surveys are commonly used by the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Science Foundation, and the offshore wind industry.

Two weeks ago, after more than 10 years of our industry working with BOEM and the National Marine Fisheries Service to try and develop a regulatory framework to guide seismic surveying in the Gulf, they have finally released a draft document. However, after examining the report, we have found that there are certain areas where we have concerns and will be examining more thoroughly during the comment period.

We will be looking closely at the various mitigation measures proposed for each of the alternatives. Our initial read shows that the restrictive nature of some of the proposed mitigations would threaten the economic and operational feasibility of performing seismic surveys in the Gulf of Mexico. We have been performing seismic surveys safely with no demonstrated harm to marine mammal populations for decades. Neither our operational experience nor the best available science would dictate the level of precaution proposed in certain alternatives.

Specifically concerning are the mitigation measures that would require shutting down operations for dolphins. There is nothing to justify the need for these restrictions. Also, proposed minimum separation distances for seismic surveys running concurrently are not justifiable – something that BOEM acknowledged in the Atlantic Seismic Final EIS. BOEM’s analysis in that environmental review document concluded that the proposed 25-mile separation distance would only slightly reduce potential impacts to marine mammals and noted that there was “uncertainty” surrounding its effectiveness as a mitigation measure.

We are also deeply troubled by proposals to reduce the overall number of seismic surveys performed in the Gulf of Mexico by 10 and 25 percent. This is problematic for several reasons including potentially lower production in the future, but mainly the potential economic impact on the Gulf of Mexico region because of the seismic surveys that will not be performed and as a result wells that will not be drilled. These reductions would likely have a negative effect on the regional economy and our industry’s ability to create jobs.

Additionally, the methods used by BOEM to calculate the number of “takes” – which is a term of art from the Marine Mammal Protection Act that includes an injury or behavioral disruption to a marine mammal – needs much more scrutiny. Historically, the models used have been overly conservative and do not take into account the effective mitigation measures used by industry. The result is astronomically and unrealistically high numbers for potential takes that are then misused and sensationalized by groups opposed to energy production. The modeling used should accurately reflect the best science and research and our operational experience, which indicates that seismic surveys have little-to-no impact on marine wildlife populations.

In conclusion, our industry remains committed to improving the scientific understanding of the impacts of our operations on marine life. Seismic surveying in the Gulf of Mexico is a critical part of safe offshore energy development that is necessary if we are to continue to harness our nation’s energy potential for the benefit of American energy consumers.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Green joins API after spending 16 years as national editorial writer in the Washington Bureau of The Oklahoman newspaper. In all, he has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, including six years as sports editor at The Washington Times. He lives in Occoquan, Virginia, with his wife Pamela. Mark graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in journalism and earned a masters in journalism and public affairs at American University. He's currently working on a masters in history at George Mason University, where he also teaches as an adjunct professor in the Communication Department.