The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a division of the Commerce Department, announced that it plans to conduct a supplemental environmental review of the incidental taking of marine mammals, specifically whales, dolphins, sea lions and seals, by the oil and gas industry incidental to exploration activities in Alaska’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.
In the meantime, the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service awaits comments on its proposed regulations of the unintentional taking of polar bears during the exploration activities in the Arctic Ocean.
In the a notice published Wednesday in the Federal Register (FR), NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) said the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and North Slope Borough would be cooperative agencies on the supplemental draft environmental impact statement (SEIS), and the Environmental Protection Agency would be a consulting agency.
While the NMFA is seeking to issue regulations prohibiting the intentional taking of whales, dolphins, sea lions and seals, the FWS’ chief goal is to protect primarily polar bears in Alaska.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) authorizes the Interior secretary, through the FWS to authorize the the incidental, but not intentional, taking of small numbers of certain marine mammals species (including polar bears, walruses, and sea otters) associated with specified activities, provided that, the total of such taking will have no more than a negligible impact on marine mammal species and does not have an unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of the species for subsistence uses.
NMFS defines “negligible impact” as “an impact resulting from the specified activity that cannot be reasonably expected to, and is not reasonably likely to, adversely affect the species or stock through effects on annual rates or recruitment or survival,” it noted.
Earlier this month, the FWS proposed regulations authorizing the nonlethal, incidental, unintentional taking of small numbers of Pacific walruses and polar bears during oil and gas industry exploration activities in the Chukchi Sea and adjacent western coast of Alaska. If adopted as proposed, the rule would be effective for five years from the date of issuance of the final rule.
“We propose a finding that the total expected takings of Pacific walruses and polar bears during industry exploration activities will impact small numbers of animals, will have a negligible impact on these species, and will not have an unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of these species for subsistence use by Alaska Natives,” the FWS said in its proposed rule, published in the FR on Jan. 9. Comments are due by Feb. 8.
The regulations propose “permissible methods of nonlethal taking; measures to ensure that industry activities will have the least practicable adverse impact on the species and their habitats, and on the availability of these species for subsistence uses; and requirements for monitoring and reporting of any incidental takings which may occur, to the [FWS].”
In December 2011, NMFS issued its draft EIS addressing the issue of incidental taking of marine mammals in Alaska. But in light of comments received, NMFS and Interior’s BOEM determined that they needed to explore a “broader range of potential levels of exploratory drilling scenarios in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.”
In the upcoming SEIS, NMFS and BOEM will analyze an additional alternative that considers up to four exploratory drilling programs in the two Arctic seas per year. In the 2011 draft EIS, a maximum of two exploratory drilling programs were considered per year.
NMFS said it is not seeking comments from the public now. Rather, it will use the information submitted by the public on the draft EIS to “inform the content and analysis in the [SEIS].” The public will have the opportunity to comment on the SEIS when it is published.
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