Producers interested in developing oil and natural gas resources offshore the South Atlantic and Mid-Atlantic coast received promising news from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which Thursday issued a final review of mitigation measures to protect marine life before seismic and other types of surveys are performed in the region.
The Interior Department agency's final environmental review of geological and geophysical (G&G) survey activities off the Atlantic Coast establishes "multiple mitigation measures" and a path to take surveys that would update data almost 40 years old on offshore energy potential. The preferred alternative in the programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) identifies the "most protective mitigation measures and strongest safeguards" to reduce or eliminate impacts to marine life.
"Our scientific knowledge of the Atlantic Ocean is constantly building, and new information and analyses will continue to be developed over time, which is why we are employing a comprehensive adaptive management strategy that takes this into account," said BOEM Director Tommy Beaudreau. "As the PEIS does not by itself authorize any G&G activities, the site-specific reviews will incorporate any significant new information available after the PEIS is published."
An analysis of this scale, he said, "is a significant undertaking that has involved extensive public input and coordination among several federal agencies and state governments.”
Interior and BOEM "have been steadfast in our commitment to balancing the need for understanding offshore energy resources with the protection of the human and marine environment using the best available science as the basis of this environmental review."
While the PEIS doesn't authorize any G&G activities, it establishes a framework for more mandatory environmental reviews for site-specific actions, broadly identifying measures that would govern any future activities. As new scientific information becomes available, the findings could be incorporated through an adaptive management approach.
Mitigation measures include requirements to:
Avoid vessel strikes;
Special closure areas to protect the main migratory route for the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale;
Geographic separation of simultaneous seismic airgun surveys; and
Passive acoustic monitoring to supplement visual observers and improve marine mammal detection before and during seismic airgun surveys.
The PEIS assesses G&G activities that would be conducted under BOEM's oil/gas, renewable energy and marine minerals program through 2020, including deep-penetration and high-resolution seismic surveys; electromagnetic surveys, magnetic surveys, gravity surveys, remote-sensing surveys, and geological and geochemical sampling. The preferred alternative also evaluates "reasonably foreseeable environmental effects in adjacent state waters."
President Obama in 2010 proposed opening the South Atlantic and Mid-Atlantic coasts and parts of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to exploration and development activities (see Daily GPI, April 1, 2010). BOEM was directed to prepare the PEIS because there had been no comprehensive review of the potential environmental impacts of G&G activities for the Atlantic Coast.
Because of the potentially broad scope of future surveys and their potential impacts, BOEM determined a PEIS would be required ahead of any large-scale G&G surveys. The agency coordinated activities with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies and organizations to develop the mitigation strategy.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Thursday she was encouraged by the progress "being made to explore for potential offshore energy production along the Atlantic Coast" because it had been almost four decades since the federal government had surveyed the region.
"It's long past time that we have a sound understanding and reliable estimates of the Atlantic's natural resource potential so we can produce energy and create high-paying jobs," Landrieu said. "As we work toward this object, we must also have a revenue-sharing plan in place to create a partnership between the federal government and the coastal states that will host any offshore energy production."
Last year a group of Republican governors asked for more state authority to decide the level of activity on the Outer Continental Shelf (see Daily GPI, May 9, 2013). The coalition, formed in 2011, includes the governors of Alabama, Alaska, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia to promote a dialogue with the federal government on responsible development of offshore energy resources.
The draft PEIS was issued for public comment in March 2012. Over the three-month comment period, BOEM received input from more than 55,000 various stakeholders. It also held 15 public hearings along the Atlantic Coast to explain the process.
"State-of-the-practice G&G data and information are used to identify sand and gravel resources suitable for coastal protection and restoration, site renewable energy installations, and locate oil and gas resources," BOEM said. "G&G activities also provide specific information about the location of shallow hazards, cultural resources and benthic communities so that these areas can be avoided during any bottom-disturbing activities." Benthic zones are the ecological regions at the lowest level of a body of water such as an ocean or a lake.
The final PEIS is available for comment until April 7. Once the comments are reviewed, BOEM plans to issue a record of decision, identify the alternatives considered, including the environmentally preferable alternative; identify and discuss the factors involved in the decision; and state whether all practical means to avoid or minimize environmental harm have been adopted.