The Obama administration released its long-anticipated study Thursday on the environmental impact of allowing oil and gas exploration off the East Coast through seismic surveys, unveiling a new framework for oil and gas research and potentially allowing drilling in the region in 10 years.
Researchers from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management began the study, which will inform decision-makers on whether to allow offshore drilling and what regulations to set, five years ago. The analysis examines the potential harm seismic surveys and the loud air gun blasts they require may have on whales, dolphins and other marine life, but it does not explicitly deny nor approve particular seismic studies in the designated ocean region, from mid-Florida to Delaware.
The study recommends three basic rules the government should impose on the research firms that want to use seismic waves to search for oil and gas deposits: Prohibit the survey activity on the migratory routes of the endangered North Atlantic right whale, prohibit multiple seismic surveys from being conducted simultaneously, and use passive acoustic monitoring systems to identify marine mammals in the area where the surveys will be conducted.
“We’re really going to require and demand a high level of environmental performance from any operator seeking to conduct surveys in these areas,” BOEM Director Tommy Beaudreau told reporters Thursday. “They’re really going to have to up their game and use these technologies to avoid potential conflict and environmental impact.”
The oil and gas industry says these rules could be costly, as shutting down operations or repositioning when dolphins or whales are nearby can take hours, and passive acoustic monitoring can give false readings.
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“Our primary concern is that the government is using the best available science to make these determinations,” Erik Milito, director of upstream and downstream operations for the American Petroleum Institute, the industry lobby, told reporters Thursday morning before the study was released. “Some of our concerns are how they’re developing these mitigation measures. … These measures should be the same for seismic vessels as any other vessels.”
Seismic surveys have been conducted safely for decades in the Gulf of Mexico, other areas in the U.S., and around the world, API argues. The last surveys of the Atlantic Ocean took place about 30 years ago, and technology has since improved.
The public will have until April 7 to comment on the study. Then the BOEM will make a final decision.
So far, at least nine firms have pending applications to conduct seismic studies in the mid- and south-Atlantic coastal region. The government could sell drilling rights as soon as 2017.