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Study opens path for seismic surveys off USAC for oil, gas development

Washington (Platts)--27 Feb 2014 602 pm EST/2302 GMT


The Obama administration on Thursday moved a step closer to allowing the first seismic exploration in decades for oil and gas off the US Atlantic coast, outlining a range of environmental mitigation measures that surveyors would have to follow to avoid negatively impacting wildlife and habitats.

But the announcement, made by the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in a programmatic environmental impact statement, seems sure to raise industry hackles, given the agency's stated desire to impose "the strongest safeguards" for marine life.

Those include requirements to avoid vessel strikes, closed-off areas to protect the migratory route for the endangered North Atlantic right whale, geographic separation of simultaneous seismic airgun surveys and "passive acoustic monitoring" to improve detection of marine mammals prior to seismic airgun surveys.

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The American Petroleum Institute, the National Ocean Industries Association and the International Association of Geophysical Contractors said they were still reviewing the announcement and had no immediate reaction on whether it would discourage seismic exploration or raise costs.

But in comments the groups submitted in 2012, when BOEM first considered mitigation measures for seismic surveying off the Atlantic coast, they said such requirements "would impose potentially high costs [and] greatly impede or altogether preclude the conduct of seismic surveys and geohazard and cultural resource identification."

For now, the groups say they are relieved that the long-delayed PEIS is finally out, paving the way for BOEM to begin approving seismic exploration permits in the coming months for the potentially resource-rich region, which stretches from Delaware to mid-Florida.

Jeff Vorberger, NOIA's vice president for policy and government affairs, said the completion of the PEIS represents "an important step in the determination of whether to open up new areas of the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf to oil and natural gas exploration."

Meanwhile, environmental and wildlife groups opposed to opening up the Atlantic coast to development blasted the PEIS, saying BOEM should have strictly limited the areas where airgun surveying could occur, likening such activity to "dynamite going off in your neighborhood every 10 seconds for days, weeks and months on end."

"Airgun exploration is not only a gateway drug to offshore drilling but, as the scientific community has recognized, a major assault on the oceans in itself," the Natural Resources Defense Council's Michael Jasny said.

In the PEIS, BOEM said the rules, when finalized, would provide a framework for its decisions on whether to approve applications it has received to conduct seismic surveys of the region. The PEIS will be available for public comment through April 7, after which the agency will issue a "record of determination" that would codify the rules.

OLD DATA

The last seismic surveys of the area were done about 30 years ago, and industry groups have said the information is outdated and not as reliable as surveys shot using newer technology.

More recent projections include a 2011 analysis by BOEM, which concluded that the Mid-Atlantic region, which stretches from Delaware to South Carolina, could contain undiscovered, technically recoverable resources of 1.42 billion barrels of oil and 19.4 Tcf of natural gas.

BOEM will begin work next year on its 2017-2022 offshore development plan and is weighing whether to allow lease sales off the Atlantic coast, where hey are currently not allowed.

BOEM Director Tommy Beaudreau said the PEIS is "part of our strategy to help us understand the resource, to help us understand its location, any potential special conflicts and to ensure a fair return for the taxpayer."

Beaudreau said BOEM currently has nine applications for seismic surveying in the Atlantic. Before the agency approves any of them, they would be subject to individual, site-specific environmental reviews, he said.

However, all nine applications were submitted before a Virginia lease sale was canceled by BOEM after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Erik Milito, the API's director of upstream and industry operations, said he expects the applicants will have to resubmit their permit requests, "to make sure their applications have the latest information and conform to the requirements."

But the real catalyst for oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic will be any announcement from the Obama administration that an Atlantic lease sale will be included in its 2017-2022 plan, Milito said. BOEM officials have so far been mum on that possibility.

"There could be a waiting game on whether [seismic exploration firms] move forward, based on whether the government allows the potential for leasing," Milito said. "If that signal comes, you'll then see a lot more activity in terms of companies moving forward with seismic operations in the Atlantic."

--Herman Wang, herman.wang@platts.com
--Edited by Annie Siebert, ann.siebert@platts.com




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