Seismic permitting timing data needed
GAO report assesses processes for dealing with OCS survey permit applications; says NMHS and FWS need to record application dates
The Government Accountability Office has recommended that the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service record their review dates for incidental take authorizations associated with outer continental shelf seismic survey permit applications. GAO also recommended that the two agencies analyze how long it takes to process applications. The recommendations follow a request from the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources for a GAO investigation into the seismic survey permitting process.
Geological and geophysical surveys, including seismic surveys, on the OCS require a permit from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Offshore seismic surveys are critical in gaining insights into where to drill for oil and gas, and in understanding the structure of the subsurface below the seafloor. And the time taken to obtain a permit can be critical in the viability of offshore industrial activities.
GAO reviewed data relating to seismic survey permit applications for the period 2011 to 2016 for Alaska, the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico regions, there being no applications made for the Pacific region, the other OCS region, during that time period. During the six-year period, BOEM issued 264 permits, 250 of which were for the Gulf of Mexico. Eight permits were issued for the Alaska region, and six for the Atlantic.
Two types of surveyThe report considered two types of survey: shallow, high-resolution surveys that use high frequency sound sources, and deep penetration surveys involving seismic vessels towing air guns that generate relatively low frequency sound. Because the noise associated with the surveying operations can disturb ocean wildlife, a permit application may require an authorization for the incidental take of marine mammals, under the terms of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. An incidental take involves the unintended, non-lethal, disturbance of the animals. An incidental take authorization typically includes mitigation measures that must be taken to prevent unacceptable wildlife disturbance.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, an agency within the Department of Commerce, issues incidental harassment authorizations for some species of marine mammal, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, within the Department of the Interior, issues authorizations for other species.
BOEM must also conduct an environmental review under the terms of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act - the ESA review may in turn trigger a consultation, if the planned survey may impact an endangered species.
Thus, depending on the circumstances, the total time to process and issue a permit and the authorizations required to conduct a seismic survey can involve time taken by up to three federal agencies: BOEM, NMFS and FWS.
Impacted by public controversyThe total time taken tends to be influenced by the amount of public controversy over the planned survey, with surveys planned in regions where there is a history of similar operations typically being processed more quickly than in “frontier regions,” where many people may be uncomfortable with offshore development, the GAO report says.
In particular, several hundred seismic surveys have been issued over the years in the Gulf of Mexico. As a consequence, permitting in this region has become somewhat routine, with BOEM often not requiring an incidental take authorization. On the other hand, BOEM generally requires an incidental take authorization for a survey in the Alaska or Atlantic OCS, the report says.
However, in response to a court case in which environmental organizations sued Interior over BOEM policies for the permitting of seismic surveys in the Gulf of Mexico, NMFS is currently developing new incidental take regulations for the Gulf, the GAO report says.
Time taken highly variableThere have been instances in which BOEM has issued a permit immediately on receipt of an application, for both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. However, permits have taken up to 287 days to process for the Gulf and up to 340 days for the Atlantic. Permits for the Alaska OCS have taken from 35 to 200 days to process. Deep penetration surveys tend to take longer to permit that shallow, high resolution surveys, the report says.
A particular issue in the Atlantic region is the fate of six permit applications for deep penetration surveys. BOEM deemed these applications complete in March to June 2014 and eventually denied the applications in January 2017. Unusually, the agency put these applications through a public review period. In May the federal administration rescinded the permit denials and BOEM announced that it would reconsider the applications, the GAO report says
During the period under investigation, NMFS issued 16 incidental take authorizations for seismic surveys in the Alaska region, four for the Atlantic and one for the Gulf of Mexico. FWS issued seven authorizations for the Alaska region - marine species under FWS jurisdiction do not tend to be found in other regions, the report says.
Records of datesBut, while BOEM maintains records of when it accepts permit applications as complete, neither NMFS nor FWS were able to provide accurate data regarding the dates on which the agencies started their formal processing of incidental take authorizations. In fact, neither agency has a formal procedure for recording the dates. Consequently, it is not possible to determine whether the agencies were meeting any statutory timelines that apply to the processing. In particular, by law the agency must process one type of authorization, an incidental harassment authorization, within 120 days of receiving an application, the GAO report says.
In June 2017 NMFS issued proposed incidental harassment authorizations for five of those proposed Atlantic surveys that BOEM had been considering since 2014. NMFS had received applications for these authorizations in 2014 and 2015.
Given the lack of data over the time when formal processing of applications to NMFS and FWS starts, GAO recommended that each of these agencies institute formal guidance, clarifying how and when staff should record the date on which the agency determines an application to be complete and ready for processing. The two agencies also need to analyze the times taken to process applications, particularly in relation to the statutory timeframes for agency reviews, GAO said.
For the most part both NMFS and FWS agreed with the GAO recommendations. But FWS said that it only plans to develop guidelines for recording dates for incidental harassment authorizations, the form of authorization to which a statutory timeline applies.