Seismic Airgun Blasting Comments July 5, 2017

July 5, 2017

Via email to ITP.Laws@noaa.gov and walter.cruickshank@boem.gov

Jolie Harrison
Chief, Permits and Conservation Division
Office of Protected Resources
National Marine Fisheries Service
1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910

Dr. Walter Cruickshank
Acting Director
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
U.S. Department of Interior
1849 C Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20240

RE: Comments on Takes of Marine Mammals Incidental to Specified Activities; Taking Marine Mammals Incidental to Geophysical Surveys in the Atlantic Ocean; RIN 0648–XE283, 82 Fed. Reg. 26,244 (June 6, 2017). Also comments and recommendations on the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s permitting process for seismic surveys in the Atlantic.

Dear Ms. Harrison and Director Cruickshank,

The Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast (BAPAC) is a non-profit business organization with the mission to ensure the long term health and economic vitality of the Atlantic seaboard through responsible stewardship of the coastal and ocean waters. BAPAC has the support of over 41,000 business and 500,000 commercial fishing families.

BAPAC opposes seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic Ocean. We ask the National Marine Fisheries Service to deny the Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) applications and refuse to allow the taking of marine mammals during activities related to seismic airgun blasting for offshore oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic Ocean. We ask that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management deny all seismic survey permits for the Atlantic.

BAPAC asks that these comments and all of our future comments be included in the Administrative Record for both the decisions on the Atlantic seismic applications under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and the National Environmental Protection Act analysis in support of the permitting decisions.

BAPAC—which has standing in this matter given its previous participation in the process and the direct impact seismic testing would have on its supporters—in a letter to Acting BOEM Director Walter Cruickshank on June 5, 2017, stated its opposition to the Department of Interior’s remand of the January 6, 2017, denied seismic permit applications. BAPAC filed a motion to intervene in the appeal of those denied permits and maintains that the remand was a political not a scientific- or data- or process-based decision and therefore stands in violation of legal administrative procedures.

Previous BOEM Denials Should Stand

BAPAC contends that there has been no intervening change of events or circumstances that would invalidate any reason given by BOEM for the January 6th denial of the seismic permits. Therefore any further consideration of the permits, even if lawful, should arrive at the same conclusion—the denial of all seismic permits.

  1. The Atlantic Program Area is still not offered for leasing considerations for the next five years.
  2. There has been no change to the potential risks to marine life from seismic survey acoustic pulse given that the Mid and South Atlantic is not included in the existing outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program.
  3. There is still the possibility that seismic survey information would not be used if the Atlantic is not offered for future oil and gas leasing.
  4. Any data from seismic surveys may still become outdated if leasing is far in the future.
  5. The development of lower impact survey technology is even more likely to be available before future geophysical and geological information would be needed if the Atlantic Program Area should be included in a future five year plan.

Furthermore, BAPAC maintains that BOEM’s previous denial of the seismic permits was consistent with the agency’s mission regarding energy independence, economic development and environmental protection.

  1. The United States is becoming the “world’s energy super power” often exporting “more than one million barrels of oil per day,” according to The Wall Street Journal (June 16, 2017) and “imports about 25% of petroleum consumption on net, mostly from Canada and Mexico”. The publication declared that the preoccupation with energy independence is over. The Trump Administration earlier had proposed selling off half of the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve because of our abundant domestic supplies. President Trump on June 29, 2017, declared that “(o)ur country is blessed with true energy abundance” and that his Administration’s goal is for “American energy dominance”, which is not within the mission of BOEM. Clearly BOEM’s previous decision to deny the seismic permits was not inconsistent with its mission regarding energy independence.
  2. The earlier denial of the seismic permits was consistent with economic development interests of the Atlantic Coast communities which thrive from tourism, commercial fishing and recreation related businesses.       The growth of these industries and thus the entire Atlantic Coast economies are contingent on a healthy ocean and healthy marine animals.       To date, 125 East Coast municipalities and more than 1,200 elected officials have formerly opposed seismic testing and offshore drilling because of the threat to the economic health of their communities. The Department of Interior estimates that proposed seismic airgun blasting off the East Coast could injure up to 138,000 marine mammals and disturb millions more. These marine mammals are an integral part of the Atlantic Coast tourism economy. In their healthy state these animals are eagerly sought out by tourists using small business sight-seeing vessels.       When these mammals are injured or harassed by seismic blasting, the response is at a minimum displacement and at worse stranding and death on beaches. Scientific research has also demonstrated various fish species being impacted by seismic airgun blasting. In 2014, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Duke University, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conducted a study of reef-fish during seismic surveying. The results showed a 78% decline in reef-fish abundance during the evening hours when fish habitat use was highest on the previous three days without seismic noise. According to the study, “the significant reduction in fish occupation of the reef represents disruption to daily pattern.” Another study by Engas, Lokkeborg, Ona and Vold Soldal showed trawl catches of cod and haddock, and longline catches of haddock declined by about 70%, and longline catches of cod by 45% after seismic surveys started.       Furthermore, the study found that “abundance of catch rates did not return to preshooting levels during the 5-day period after seismic shooting ended.” Seismic testing has a significant detrimental impact on commercial fishing and the businesses that depend on fresh catch. BOEM’s previous decision to deny the seismic permits was consistent with its mission regarding economic development.
  3. BOEM’s earlier decision to deny the seismic permits was clearly consistent with the agency’s mission in that two of the stated reasons for denial were related to the risks to marine life from the acoustic pulse impacts. There have been no improvements to seismic surveys since the denial of the permits in January of this year. Therefore these previously stated reasons for permit denials are still valid.

Based on the above, BAPAC insists that a fact-based, scientific review of the remanded seismic permit applications result in BOEM again denying the all permits.

Protection for Environment and Existing Businesses

While maintaining BAPAC’s opposition to the approval of IHA applications and any seismic survey permits for the Atlantic Ocean and not condoning this approval with further comments and recommendations, BAPAC insists that any approved IHA applications and seismic permits mandate that the exploration process result in the least environmental damage as possible to minimize the negative impact on other businesses. In addition, seismic companies must be held responsible financially for any lost income to other businesses resulting from the seismic surveys. 

Comments and Recommendations to BOEM, NOAA & NMFS

Mitigation and Monitoring Requirements Insufficient for Protecting Marine Mammals

By all accounts, except from the seismic industry, the proposed mitigation and monitoring requirements for seismic operations to protect marine mammals is woefully insufficient. The primary reliance of observers using binoculars on the seismic vessel to look for marine mammals within a 500 meter (1/3 mile) exclusion zone is indefensible as valid protection for whales and dolphins. Adding passive acoustic monitoring below the surface is also inadequate.

  1. Even the best observer cannot be expected to spot every marine mammal that just happens to surface within the narrow and limited binocular field of vision. Add rough seas, inclement weather, moister on the binocular lens, observer fatigue and workplace peer pressure and it is clear that relying on this ancient mariner observation method results in unacceptable physical harm and harassment of marine mammals.
  2. Passive acoustic monitoring is subject to not identifying non-vocalizing mammals.       This monitoring is only required during inclement weather and at night.
  3. A 500 meter (approximately 1/3 mile) exclusion zone around the vessel in which the seismic blasts are to be ceased if a marine mammal is in the zone or traveling toward it is completely inadequate given the far greater distance the noise from the blast travels. Even the National Marine Fisheries Services in its projecting incidental harassment of marine mammals uses a 20-year old standard impact area of 5-10 kilometers (approximately 3-6 miles) from seismic vessels. However, research indicates that the impact of seismic blasting affects whales up to 100 miles or more. All of this exposes the total futility of pretending the mitigation of harm to marine mammals with an exclusion zone of only 500 meters from the seismic vessel.

Recommendations

  1. Any approved IHA application and seismic survey permit should require the exclusion zone around seismic vessels be expanded to 10 kilometers.
  2. Any approved IHA application and seismic survey permit should require observers and passive acoustic monitoring equipment on spotter vessels currently used by seismic vessels and increase distance between the spotter vessels and the seismic vessel to enable both observation methods to reach out to 10 kilometers.
  3. Any approved IHA application and seismic survey permit should require four spotter vessels to cover front and back as well as both sides of the seismic vessel.
  4. Any approved IHA application and seismic survey permit should require the use of drones for enhanced observation.
  5. Any approved IHA application and seismic survey permit should require the use of passive acoustic monitoring at all times.

Mitigation and Monitoring Requirements Nonexistent for Protecting Fish and Invertebrates

While feeble attempts to protect marine mammals have been required of seismic vessels, absolutely no mitigation and monitoring requirements are mandated to protect fish and invertebrates. Yet it is seismic blasting’s impact on fish and invertebrates that causes the most socio-economic damage to local communities and their businesses. While no research by the oil and seismic industries on the effect on fish and invertebrates has been identified, there has been some from other sources.

In a 2013 paper submitted to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Dr. Lindy Weilgart of Dalhousie University reviews the scientific literature on seismic testing effects on fish and invertebrates:

A wide range of acoustic impacts on fish has been observed. Seismic air guns extensively damaged fish ears at distances of 500 m to several kilometres from seismic surveys. No recovery was apparent 58 days after exposure (McCauley et al. 2003). Behavioral reactions of fish to anthropogenic noise include dropping to deeper depths, milling in compact schools, ‘‘freezing’’, or becoming more active (Dalen and Knutsen 1987; Pearson et al. 1992; Skalski et al. 1992; Santulli et al. 1999; McCauley et al. 2000; Slotte et al. 2004). Reduced catch rates of 40%–80% and decreased abundance have been reported near seismic surveys in species such as Atlantic cod, haddock, rockfish, herring, sand eel, and blue whiting (Dalen and Knutsen 1987; Løkkeborg 1991; Skalski et al. 1992; Engås et al. 1996; Hassel et al. 2004; Slotte et al. 2004). These effects can last up to 5 days after exposure and at distances of more than 30 km from a seismic survey. The impacts of seismic airgun noise on eggs and larvae of marine fish included decreased egg viability, increased embryonic mortality, or decreased larval growth when exposed to sound levels of 120 dB re 1 μPa (Kostyuchenko 1973; Booman et al. 1996). Turbot larvae showed damage to brain cells and neuromasts (Booman et al. 1996). Neuromasts are thought to play an important role in escape reactions for many fish larvae, and thus their ability to avoid predators. Increases in stress hormones have been observed in fish due to noise (Santulli et al. 1999).

Invertebrates also do not appear to be immune from the effects of anthropogenic noise. Nine giant squid mass stranded, some of them live, together with geophysical surveys using air guns in 2001 and 2003 in Spain (Guerra et al. 2004). The squid all had massive internal injuries, some severe, with internal organs and ears badly damaged. Another species of squid exposed to airgun noise showed an alarm response at 156-161 dB rms and a strong startle response involving ink ejection and rapid swimming at 174 dB re 1µPa rms (McCauley et al. 2000). Caged squid also tried to avoid the noise by moving to the acoustic shadow of the cage. McCauley et al. (2000) suggest that the behavioral threshold for squid is 161-166 dB rms. A bivalve, Paphia aurea, showed acoustic stress as evidenced by hydrocortisone, glucose, and lactate levels when subjected to seismic noise (Moriyasu et al. 2004). Catch rates also declined with seismic noise exposure in Bolinus brandaris, a gastropod, the purple dye murex (Moriyasu et al. 2004). In snow crab, bruised ovaries and injuries to the equilibrium receptor system or statocysts were also observed (DFO 2004). Seismic noise-exposed crabs showed sediments in their gills and statocysts, and changes consistent with a stress response compared with control animals. Aguilar de Soto et al. (2013) produced evidence that playbacks of seismic pulses during larval development caused developmental delays and in 46%, body malformations in scallops, potentially affecting recruitment of wild scallop larvae.

A more recent study (Day et al. 2016) found:

In scallops, seismic exposure did not cause immediate mass mortality, however, exposure, particularly repeated exposure, increased the risk of mortality significantly and scallops showed severely compromised physiology over a chronic (4 months) time frame from which there were no signs of recovery. There were also significant changes in behaviour and reflexes during and following seismic exposure. Given the compromised physiological condition of the exposed scallops in this study it is likely that they would have reduced tolerance to subsequent stressors, including environmental, nutritional and pathological stressors. Furthermore, it is presently unclear whether the observed physiological impairment would result in heightened chronic mortality in timeframes beyond those examined in the current study. An extended study, along with a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying the considerable physiological disruption observed is necessary to fully understand the ultimate outcomes resulting from exposure to air gun signals. It is also important to note that this study investigated adult scallops only and did not cover any aspect of reproduction or embryonic, larval, or juvenile life stages.

The reality is that while there is sufficient research indicating that noise negatively impacts fish and invertebrates, exactly what the minimum noise levels are that result in harm and behavioral changes in marine animals has not been researched appropriately to set guidelines.

The physical harm and harassment to fish and invertebrates from seismic surveys is not inconsequential collateral damage from the blasting of the ocean. The vibrant Atlantic Coast seafood industry is at risk should seismic testing be allowed along the East Coast.

While mitigation and monitoring of fish and invertebrates would be more difficult than for marine mammals, the potential economic devastation requires the effort.

Recommendations

  1. Before any approval of an IHA application and seismic survey permit, research recommended by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (July 1, 2016, letter to the NMFS/NOAA) must be conducted. “NOAA should characterize and assess acute impacts of noise exposure and develop acoustic exposure thresholds for Council-managed species or species complexes. These should at a minimum address the level at which auditory injury will occur or behavior (e.g., migration, feeding, spawning, and larval settlement) will be disrupted.”
  2. Before any approval of an IHA application and seismic survey permit, seismic companies should be required to work with commercial fishermen and NOAA to collect data for the mapping of fish spawning and movements of all commercial fish in an effort to reduce the negative impact on fish catches. These maps will be used by NOAA to prescribe where and when seismic surveys can be done.
  3. Before any approval of an IHA application and seismic survey permit, research should be conducted into best practices for mitigating and monitoring measures for commercial fish within a 10 kilometer exclusion zones around seismic vessels. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (July 1, 2016, letter to the NMFS/NOAA) recommended that “NOAA should develop measures that will provide the following for managed species: real-time detection and action to limit acute/direct impacts; seasonal/area limitations (e.g., in HAPCs); and noise abatement/reduction (to reduce both chronic and acute impacts).”
  4. Before any approval of an IHA application and seismic survey permit, research should be conducted into best practices for mitigating and monitoring measures for commercial invertebrates in 10 kilometer exclusion zones around seismic vessels.

Impact on the Base of the Ocean Food Chain Ignored

The amount of research on seismic airgun blasting’s impact on marine animals ranges from considerable for mammals, few for fish, little for invertebrates and, until June of this year, none on plankton. The authors of this latter research (McCauley et al. 2017) state that:

a significant component of zooplankton communities comprises the larval stages of many commercial fisheries species. . . . We cannot fully understand impacts of seismic surveys on higher order fauna or on an ecosystem level without knowledge of how organisms at the base of the food chain respond.

McCauley et al. used a comparatively small replication of the actual magnitude of seismic airgun blasting. Only a single airgun was used in a field environment to determine the impact on zooplankton.

In a review of the results of McCauley et al. Francine Kershaw of NRDC writes:

In the study, scientists found that the blasts from a single seismic airgun caused a statistically significant decrease in zooplankton 24 hours after exposure. Abundance fell by at least 50% in more than half (58%) of the species observed. The scientists also found two to three times more dead zooplankton following airgun exposure compared to controls and, shockingly, krill larvae were completely wiped out. 

As McCauley et al. state, “healthy populations of fish, top predators and marine mammals are not possible without viable planktonic productivity.” Likewise, a healthy commercial and recreational fishing industry as well as ocean-tourism economy are not possible without healthy populations of fish, top predators and marine mammals.

The International Association of Geophysical Contractors president, Nikki Martin, has indicated that the McCauley et al. research is insufficient to draw conclusions about the impact seismic airgun blasting has on plankton. In a story in The Virginia-Pilot (June 25, 2017), Ms. Martin is quoted saying, “Both statistically and methodologically, this project falls short of what would be needed to provide a convincing case for adverse effects from geophysical survey operations.”

BAPAC does not agree that the research presented by McCauley et al. is insufficient to draw conclusions. If the International Association of Geophysical Contractors wants to dispute the findings, it must do so with more research and not just dismissive words.

Recommendations

  1. Before any approval of an IHA application and seismic survey permit, extensive research should be conducted to determine the impact of seismic airgun blasting on plankton and if there is any safe level of seismic airgun activity on this base of the ocean food chain.
  2. Before any approval of an IHA application and seismic survey permit and only after the above research is completed, NOAA should develop best practices for mitigating adverse impact of seismic airgun blasting on plankton or conclude that there is no safe level of seismic activity on plankton. In the latter scenario, all IHA applications and permits for seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic must be denied.

 Analysis of Impact of Multiple Seismic Airgun Surveys Understated or Nonexistent

Others will be pointing out that the National Marine Fisheries Service report on incidental harassment of marine mammals due to seismic surveys is seriously flawed resulting in serious understatement of the numbers marine mammals impacted and the severity of the impact.

One of the problems is that NMFS, as acknowledged, considered “the potential impacts of the specified activities independently” and made “preliminary determinations specific to each request for authorization…”

This failure to analyze the cumulative impact of all seismic companies receiving permits results in a dramatic undercounting of marine mammal harassment. As Richard Wilderman, former Chief of the Minerals Management Service Environmental Division, points out in his comments to NMFS, “Inevitably marine mammals in the proposed survey area will at times be exposed to multiple airgun activities at once and will probably experience some airgun activity most days of the year. These multiple activities will expose marine mammals to chronic noise which will cause cumulative impacts on individuals and stocks in the area.”

Oceana’s projected cumulative impacts on stocks resulting from all seismic survey permits being approved is dramatic and often exceeds a federal court guideline for defining “small numbers” of takes under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Of particular concern are endangered species like the North Atlantic Right whale. Previous estimates of the population of this whale have been approximately 500 leading some to believe the stock was recovering. However, within the past 9 months the death of eight of these whales, six in June, indicates that the North Atlantic Right whale is on the threshold of extinction especially since three of the eight dead whales were female. Any “small numbers” of takes of this marine mammal as a result of seismic surveys is unjustified morally and probably legally under the MMPA and the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

This cumulative impact of seismic surveys will also be felt by fish, invertebrates and plankton. The scientific research on this marine life is largely based on singular seismic surveys. We must conclude that the negative impacts as described in the review by Dr. Weilgart and as shown in the research of Day et al. and MacCauley et al. will be far worse as a result of multiple seismic surveys.

Recommendations

  1. Before any approval of an IHA application and seismic survey permit, NMFS should reassess its projections of incidental harassment of marine mammals and take into consideration the cumulative effect of multiple seismic surveys to be conducted by the numerous companies applying for permits.
  2. Before any approval of an IHA application and seismic survey permit and only after research is conducted to determine the impact of seismic airgun blasting on fish, invertebrates and plankton; NMFS should develop projections of incidental harassment of fish, invertebrates and plankton taking into consideration the cumulative effect of multiple seismic surveys to be conducted by the numerous companies applying for permits.
  3. Before any approval of an IHA application and seismic survey permit, seismic companies must present detailed plans on the extra effort they will take to avoid harming or harassing any North Atlantic Right whale with the collective goal of no takes of this mammal.
  4. BOEM should only approve one seismic airgun blasting permit thus eliminating multiple seismic surveys by multiple companies.       BOEM has previously rejected the concept of only approving one permit for seismic airgun blasting of the Atlantic primarily on the grounds that one seismic company cannot fulfill all the data needs of multiple oil companies and that “BOEM does not direct the actions of operators in the private sector or compel business decisions”.       However, published comments by officials from seismic companies seeking permits provide a different perspective. The Virginia-Pilot (June 25, 2017) reported Mr. Will Ashby, vice president of TGS, saying that his company would need two to four oil companies under contract in order to conduct the surveys.       Also according to the same Virginia-Pilot story, “Last year, an executive of one of the other applicants, Spectrum Geo, said he doubted there’d be enough demand to support more than one major survey along the coast, as long as oil prices remain depressed.”       Clearly, the private seismic companies are prepared to individually serve the needs of multiple oil companies. In regard to BOEM’s reluctance to “direct the actions of operators in the private sector or compel business decisions”, this is clearly what all regulatory agencies do to the private sector. All the parameters of seismic testing or offshore oil drilling that BOEM has and will set “direct the actions of operators in the private sector or compel business decisions”. BOEM cannot carve out this one issue as an exception to its authority and use it as a valid reason to dismiss this concept. Therefore, BOEM approving only one permit would not be compelling businesses to do anything they have not admitted might be a best business practice and it would be within the regulatory authority of the agency. In issuing only one seismic permit, BOEM should require the seismic company selected for the permit to have the vessel and technology needed to capture all the seismic data required by interested petroleum companies. The seismic company receiving the one permit should be required to sell the data from the testing to all petroleum companies based on the data being sought. Should BOEM decide not to follow this recommendation, it should prepare a report to Congress explaining how and why it reached its decision.

No Consideration or Compensation for Lost Revenue to Other Businesses Due to Seismic Surveys

The current seismic permitting process has failed to weigh the economic consequences of airgun blasting of the Atlantic on all other businesses. The death, injury and harassment of marine life has direct consequences to the business communities that depend on a healthy ocean.

BAPAC has previously submitted comments to the current and past Administrations summarizing the overall Atlantic Coast economy of $95 billion in gross domestic product and 1.4 million jobs tied to a healthy ocean. That’s the view from 30,000 feet.

The potential negative economic impact from seismic airgun blasting to individual businesses has been neither documented or considered worthy of protection. However, the adverse socio-economic impact of seismic airgun blasting is real and is directly related to the exploration’s negative impact on marine life.

BAPAC has submitted comments addressed to BOEM and NMFS from hundreds of individual business owners along the Atlantic Coast. These comments underscore the local business owners’ concern for marine life and the financial health of their businesses. They understand the connection between their ability to produce business revenue and healthy marine animals.

Considering all of the above concerns about the destructive impact seismic airgun blasting has on marine life, the concerns of these business owners are more than valid.

  • Commercial fisherman Chris McCaffity of Morehead City, NC, writes, “seismic testing will negatively impact my business by making it harder to catch snapper/grouper species.”
  • Douglas Miller of Big Marsh Guides and big game fisherman in Georgetown, SC, writes that a lack of fish due to seismic airgun blasting “means lack of business.”
  • Felicia Daniels of Island Insurance Agency in Manteo, NC, worries about losing business because most of their clients are commercial and sports fishermen who will be directly impacted by seismic airgun blasting.
  • Rockafeller’s Restaurant in Virginia Beach has been a family owned, 330-seat sea resort restaurant since 1989. Owner Elizabeth Baumann is concerned that seismic airgun blasting will disrupt their local supplies.
  • Judy Burnette Realty in Nags Head, NC, worries about a loss of income because of seismic airgun blasting. “My clients consist of fishermen wishing to purchase real estate in this area.” Seismic testing companies expect to make large profits from the exploration of the Atlantic for oil and gas. However, they should be responsible for compensating other businesses and governments for their lost revenue due to their seismic activities.

It is not just the loss of revenue to individual businesses from the effects of seismic airgun blasting that will hurt local economies. Government at the local and state levels will also have their tax revenues negatively impacted. Even if oil leases in the Atlantic are later approved, the federal government will not be sharing oil royalties with states according to the Department of Interior’s Secretary Zinke. State and local taxes on income, property, sales, food, gas, accommodations all could be reduced when seismic airgun blasting harms commercial fishing, recreational fishing and wildlife sightseeing. Reduction in these taxes will mean less government services to the East Coast residents, which raises a host of social concerns and the issue of how to quantify the value of quality of life.

    1. Before any approval of an IHA application and seismic survey permit, seismic companies or a federal agency should be required to produce a detailed financial analysis of the existing revenue being generated by different business sectors in each coastal community on the Atlantic Coast (ex. commercial fishing, fish processors, seafood markets, restaurants, recreational fishing, marine tourism, real estate, insurance, hotels, financial institutions, retail stores, service companies, rental companies, etc.).
    2. Before any approval of an IHA application and seismic survey permit, BOEM should develop scenarios of different revenue losses for each business sector in each coastal community (ex. a 5% decline in business revenue for commercial fishermen in the Outer Banks of North Carolina).
    3. Before any approval of any seismic survey permit, based on the estimates of financial loss to other businesses due to seismic testing, BOEM should require that seismic companies have the financial ability either directly, through a third party guarantor or an insurance policy to compensate other businesses with claims of lost revenue due to seismic testing activities.
    4. Before any approval of any seismic survey permit, BOEM should develop a best practices process for businesses to file claims for lost revenue due to seismic testing.
    5. Before any approval of any seismic survey permit, recommendations 1-4 above should also be followed for tax revenue loss to the local and state governments.

 

Alternative Technology: Research Knowledge Not Up-To-Date and Viable Alternatives Not Pursued

Much of the concerns about seismic surveys result from the use of airguns as sound sources. Efforts to develop alternative technology to reduce the sound exposure levels to protect marine life have been ongoing for over 30 years.  There seems to be a general consensus by most parties that the elimination of airguns from the seismic survey process is a goal to be achieved.

It its February 2014 “Atlantic OCS Proposed Geological and Geophysical Activities, Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic Planning Ares, Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement” BOEM includes a section (2.5.6) that addresses the option for the agency requiring non-airgun acoustic sources:

Under this alternative, BOEM would not authorize the use of airguns as sound sources for seismic surveys. Industry would have to rely on other measures to obtain accurate data on the location and extent of hydrocarbon resources, including alternative acoustic source technologies that produce less underwater noise and reduce the potential for impacts on marine life.

After a review of the literature on alternatives to airguns, BOEM concluded in the 2014 report:

Alternative acoustic sources are in various stages of development, and none of the systems with the potential to replace airguns as a seismic source are currently commercially available for use on a scale of activity considered in the proposed action scenario described in Chapter 3.

However, much of the research covered in BOEM’s literature review was pre-2009. The 2009 Okeanos-sponsored conference on alternatives to airgun surveys reported on by Dr. Lynda Weilgart appears to be the last time research scientists were assembled in a conference to thoroughly discuss the state of alternative technologies.

Yet BOEM’s review of specific alternatives does reveal the promise and roadblocks to alternative technologies to airgun surveys.

Marine Vibroseis (Vibrators)

BOEM refers to marine vibroseis as “the most promising alternative for airguns in select settings and applications”. Four phases of research development on different marine viborseis technologies were reportedly being tested by the Marine Vibroseis Joint  Industry Program with the final phase of research to be completed in 2016.

Hydralic Vibrators

In 1996 research was conducted comparing the results of this type of marine vibrator system, developed by Industrial Vehicles International (IVI), to airguns. The results showed that overall the data were comparable.  According to BOEM’s 2014 report:

IVI continued to further develop the system into the early 2000’s, but they are no longer actively marketing the product because there is no client base for the system. The significant expense to retrofit the marine exploration companies’ ships to support marine vibrators is not offset by reduced operation costs or better data quality. IVI presently has marine vibrator systems that could be used for seismic data collection, but they would require renovation prior to deployment, which could take 3 months to a year.

Electric Vibrators

In its discussion of the electro-mechanical marine vibrators, begun in the 1990’s, BOEM concludes that “the Geokinetics marine vibrator is the one closest to being ready for commercial use.”

Low-Frequency Acoustic Source (LACS)

In its 2014 review of alternative technology BOEM reports:

Two LACS systems are being offered commercially. . . . This system is suitable for shallow penetration towed-streamer seismic surveys or VSPs. . . . The second system, the LACS 8A, theoretically has the potential to compete with a conventional deep penetration airgun seismic array. . . . This system currently does not exist, and the project is presently on hold. It would take at least 18 months to build and field test one of these systems if money came available to do so. . . . The LACS system may be suitable but currently exists only as a design, and there is no known interest in further development of this system.

Deep-Towed Acoustics/Geophysics System (DTAGS)

In its 2014 review of alternative technology BOEM reports:

There is only one DTAGS in existence at this time. While it has imaged shallow sediments and gas hydrate environments extremely well, the current tool design could not replace a deep penetration airgun array for oil and gas exploration at this time; DTAGS was not designed for this purpose. However, there is no physical limitation to designing a resonant cavity source to simulate the frequency band of airguns. According to Weilgart (2012), DTAGS was tested in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2011 and was scheduled to undergo another trial off the coast of Oregon in September 2012.

Low-Frequency Passive Seismic Methods for Exploration (LISA)

In its 2014 review of alternative technology BOEM reports:

Nedwell (2010) describes the concept of a LISA based on the use of inexpensive but powerful and rugged electromagnetic projectors to replace airgun arrays. The prospective benefit was that since the signal could be well controlled, both in frequency content and in the direction in which the sound propagated, the possibility existed of undertaking seismic surveys in environmentally sensitive areas with little or no collateral environmental impact. . . . The results indicate that it would be possible to achieve an array source level of about 223 dB re 1 μPa @ 1 m, which is adequate for seismic surveying.

It is clear that possible technology alternatives to the use of airguns is or could be available going forward.  BOEM recognized this possibility as one of the reasons it denied the seismic permits for the Atlantic in January, 2017, when it cited the “probable development of lower impact survey technology before future geophysical and geological information would be needed.”

The BOEM review of the literature on alternative technologies yields two important conclusions.

First, given the time that has elapsed since the 2014 BOEM report, research and technology has progressed on alternative technology. As an example, Duncan et al. (2017) released a new report on Marine Vibroseis research.

Second, the one major obstacle to completing the development of commercially viabile alternative technology to airguns is client demand:

IVI continued to further develop the system into the early 2000’s, but they are no longer actively marketing the product because there is no client base for the system.

The LACS system may be suitable but currently exists only as a design, and there is no known interest in further development of this system.

This is a circular problem.

  1. BOEM states that there is no commercially viable alternative technology to seismic airguns.
  2. Commercially viable alternative technology to seismic airguns is not fully developed because BOEM doesn’t require it.

Only BOEM has the ability address this circular problem by requiring the development of commercially viable alternatives to airguns prior to approving any seismic permits. Oil companies are satisfied with not increasing the cost of seismic surveys and seismic companies are satisfied to simply cannibalize airgun equipment from vessels not in use thus guaranteeing the worst outcomes from the airgun blasting. As long as BOEM does not insist on alternative technology to airguns, those new technologies will not be developed into commercially viable alternatives.

Argument will be made that the time and cost of bringing alternative technologies to market are too great.

However, BOEM’s review of the literature shows that several technologies can be commercially ready in six months to a year if demanded. Such a timeline is well within the needs of seismic data. BOEM has not approved oil leases for the Atlantic and might not. Should leases be approved at some time in the future, the prospects of actual drilling for oil in the Atlantic within the next 5 to 10 years or longer given the cost of drilling and price of oil are not realistic. Using this time to commercially develop alternative technologies is the logical path forward to protecting marine life and thus local economies.

Regarding cost, BOEM’s 2014 report clearly implies that the agency must take into account the cost to the seismic industry to retrofit vessels with new technology. From its 2014 report BOEM says of hydrolic vibrators:

The significant expense to retrofit the marine exploration companies’ ships to support marine vibrators is not offset by reduced operation costs or better data quality.

While BOEM appears to allow cost to seismic companies influence its view on the use of alternative technology, nowhere does it demonstrate concern for the cost to local economies from allowing a technology that causes the most environmental damage. If BOEM weighs the issue of cost of alternative technology, it must do so for both seismic companies AND the tens of thousands of private businesses that make up the Atlantic Coast tourism, commercial fishing and recreation economies.

Furthermore in regard to cost and BOEM’s statement above about hydrolic vibrators, the agency makes a wrong assumption about who bears the cost for retrofitting a seismic vessel with new technology. The seismic companies are providing a must-have service to their clients, the oil companies. In charging for those services, the seismic companies will increase the cost to their clients for performing the service, plus profit. From a business perspective, if a regulatory agency requires new technology in the performance of the service, that additional cost will be passed on to the client. If the seismic company makes a specific percent of profit above the actual cost, the actual dollar amount of the profit will be higher for the seismic company if its costs are higher.

Should BOEM decide to approve permits for seismic surveys in the Atlantic, it has the responsibility to require the most environmentally safe technology and methodology thus causing the least damage to local economies and other private businesses. There is no urgency for seismic data and, ironically, adding incremental cost to the process will financially benefit seismic companies.

Recommendations

  1. Before approval of any seismic survey permit, a conference on alternative technologies to airgun surveys, such as the Okeanos-sponsored conference of 2009, must be convened to provide the most up-to-date knowledge to BOEM. All expenses for holding this conference, including expenses and professional fees of researchers presenting, should be paid by BOEM.
  2. After holding this conference and before approval of any seismic permits, BOEM should analyze the findings of the conference and take appropriate steps to identify alternative technology to airguns that can provide data of approximately the same quality.       Cost should not be a consideration.
  3. Should BOEM approved any permits for seismic surveying in the Atlantic, it should require that the alternative technology identified in recommendation #2 above must be used for performing the surveys to reduce the sound exposure levels to protect marine life and thus cause less economic damage to other businesses and local economies.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments and recommendations on this very important issue. Please contact us with any questions or clarifications.

Sincerely,

Frank Knapp Jr.
President & CEO