Court Agrees with BOEM and NMFS that Seismic Is Safe

Oceana and other environmental groups sued the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia over two oil and gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico.  The enviros claimed that these GOM lease sales for various reasons violated NEPA and the Endangered Species Act. The court, in a 64-page opinion, rejected the envios’ claims and granted summary judgment motions filed by the Government and industry intervenors.

The enviros challenged many different offshore oil and gas operations in this case, including so-called “ancillary activities.”  Seismic airguns are one of these “ancillary activities.”  The court rejected all the enviro challenges to seismic. As the court explained at pages 51 and 54 of its opinion, which is available here,

“BOEM took efforts to insure that Lease Sale 216/222 itself would not jeopardize  any listed species, while it awaited (awaits) NMFS’s Biological Opinion.…And with respect to endangered species generally, BOEM included a list of six actions lessees  must take to insure that its lease activities ‘prevent or minimize harm to the environment,’ including ‘maintain[ing] a distance of 90 meters or greater from whales,’ and ‘employ[ing] mitigation measures . . . for all seismic surveys.’ Such lease stipulations show that BOEM set out to minimize harm to the endangered species in the Gulf of Mexico, and therefore insure no-jeopardy.”


“[W]ith respect to ancillary activities, BOEM issued certain Notices to Lessees  (“NTL”) to insure that protective measures are taken when  engaging in ancillary  activity. …Such measures include seismic survey mitigation measures and protected species observer programs. See JOINT NTL No. 2012-G02, January 1, 2012.31 Thus, BOEM has taken steps to insure that its actions do not cause harm to endangered species while it engages in interim consultation with NMFS on the updated Biological Opinion. It has therefore independently insured no-jeopardy  and satisfied the requirements of section 7(a) of the ESA.”

The court’s opinion reinforces BOEM and NMFS’ repeated statements that oil and gas seismic under current and long-standing regulation does not injure the environment.

For example, BOEM recently stated in Volume I, page 2-22 of its Final Environmental Impact Statement for GOM Oil and Gas Lease Sales for the Eastern Planning Area Lease Sales 225 and 226, which is available here :

“NTL 2012-JOINT-G02, “Implementation of Seismic Survey Mitigation   Measures and Protected Species Observer Program,” minimizes the potential of  harm from seismic operations to marine mammals. These mitigations include onboard observers, airgun shut-downs for whales in the exclusion zone, ramp-up procedures, and the use of a minimum sound source. Therefore, no significant cumulative impacts to marine mammals would be expected as a result of the  proposed exploration activities when added to the impacts of past, present, or   reasonably foreseeable oil and gas development in the area, as well as other ongoing activities in the area.

Within the [Gulf of Mexico Central Planning Area], which is directly adjacent to the [GOM Eastern Planning Area], there is a long-standing and well-developed  OCS Program (more than 50 years); there are no data to suggest that activities from the preexisting OCS Program are significantly impacting marine mammal populations. Therefore, in light of an EPA proposed action and its impacts, the incremental effect of an EPA proposed action on marine mammal populations is  not expected to be significant when compared with non-OCS energy-related activities.”

As another example, NMFS agrees at page 49795  here, that “to date, there is no evidence that serious injury, death, or stranding by marine mammals can occur from exposure to airgun pulses, even in the case of large airgun arrays.”

As one final example, NMFS received an application from Furie Operating Alaska LLC (Furie) for a Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) to take marine mammals, by harassment, incidental to a proposed 3D seismic survey in Cook Inlet, Alaska, between May 2014 and May 2015. NMFS’ Federal Register notice of this proposed seismic IHA states at page 12165:

“Researchers have studied TTS in certain captive odontocetes and pinnipeds  exposed to strong sounds (reviewed in Southall et al., 2007). However, there has been no specific documentation of TTS let alone permanent hearing damage, i.e.,    permanent threshold shift (PTS), in free-ranging marine mammals exposed to  sequences of airgun pulses during realistic field conditions.”

The Oceana court opinion supports these BOEM and NMFS statements about seismic.  Oil and gas seismic is safe under current regulation.

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