The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) yesterday published a final environmental review of geological and geophysical (G&G) survey activities off the Mid- and South Atlantic coast that establishes multiple mitigation measures designed to minimize the impacts to marine life while setting a path forward for survey activities that will update nearly four-decade-old data on offshore energy resources in the region.
The agency’s preferred alternative in the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) identifies the most protective mitigation measures and the strongest safeguards to reduce or eliminate impacts to marine life. Mitigation efforts 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 (PAM) to supplement visual observers and improve detection of marine mammals prior to and during seismic airgun surveys.
The PEIS does not authorize any G&G activities, but rather it establishes a framework for additional mandatory environmental reviews for site-specific actions and identifies broadly-applicable measures governing any future G&G activities. As new scientific information becomes available, these additional findings can be incorporated into the survey-specific environmental reviews through an adaptive management approach.
“Analysis of this scale is a significant undertaking that has involved extensive public input and coordination among several federal agencies and state governments,” said BOEM Director Tommy P. Beaudreau. “The Department 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.”
The PEIS assesses G&G activities conducted under BOEM’s oil and gas, renewable energy and marine minerals programs 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 PEIS also evaluates reasonably foreseeable environmental effects in adjacent state waters.
Congress in 2010 directed BOEM to prepare the PEIS because there had been no comprehensive review of potential environmental impacts of G&G activities off the Atlantic coast. Given the potential broad scope of future surveys and their potential effects, BOEM determined that a PEIS under the National Environmental Policy Act was needed before the permitting of any new, large-scale G&G surveys could be considered. BOEM coordinated with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies and organizations to develop a mitigation strategy focused on avoiding injury to marine animals and reducing the potential for behavioral disruption.
Since 1998, BOEM has partnered with academia and other experts to invest more than $50 million on protected species and noise-related research. The bureau has provided critical studies on marine mammals, such as the sperm whale and seismic impacts, and conducted numerous expert stakeholder workshops to discuss and identify further information needs on acoustic impacts.
“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 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.”
BOEM published the draft PEIS for public comment on March 30, 2012. During the 90-day comment period, BOEM received more than 55,000 comments from a variety of industry, government and non-government stakeholder groups and the general public. BOEM also held 15 public meetings throughout the Mid- and South Atlantic to discuss the process and receive attendees’ comments.
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. 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-distrurbing activities.
The Final PEIS is available for public comment until April 7, 2014. After reviewing the comments, BOEM will issue of a Record of Decision (ROD). The ROD will state the decision of the agency; identify the alternatives considered, including the environmentally preferable alternative; identify and discuss the factors involved in the decision; and will state whether all practical means to avoid or minimize environmental harm have been adopted.
Press release, February 28, 2014; Image: BOEM