The U.S. Minerals Management Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service have published a draft programmatic environmental impact statement “to describe and analyze the potential significant environmental impacts related to reasonably foreseeable proposed geophysical exploration and scientific research using seismic surveys in waters of the Arctic Alaska outer continental shelf.” Those outer continental shelf areas essentially consist of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, outside the State of Alaska’s three-mile coastal limit.
Offshore lease sales proposed by MMS and a resurgence of interest by industry in Arctic offshore exploration has triggered a flurry of Arctic offshore seismic activity. In 2006 Shell, ConocoPhillips and GX Technologies all conducted seismic surveys in the Chukchi Sea, and Shell plans to conduct further surveys in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in the summer of 2007. GX Technologies had also planned to conduct further surveys in the Chukchi in 2007, but has decided not to progress with those plans.
PEA in 2006In 2006 MMS prepared a 300-page programmatic environmental assessment for the seismic surveys planned for that year — the agency had decided to take a programmatic approach rather than preparing an assessment for each survey, in recognition of the potential cumulative impacts of multiple surveys happening at around the same time.
That programmatic environmental assessment made a finding of no significant impact from the surveys, thus opening the door for the surveys to proceed without the need for the more complex process of preparing a full environmental impact statement. But MMS and NMFS decided that an EIS is required for future seismic work in the Beaufort. The agencies cited three reasons for their EIS decision:
1. MMS and NMFS “had received preliminary information from industry that suggested an additional increase in seismic survey applications beyond the 2006 levels,” the draft PEIS says. A likely increase in the scope of proposed seismic activity has triggered the need for the PEIS.
2. With the likelihood that seismic work will continue beyond 2007, MMS and NMFS felt that it was necessary to analyze the cumulative impacts of the seismic work over a longer timeframe than was considered in the programmatic environmental assessment.
3. The U.S. District Court upheld an appeal by ConocoPhillips against an Incidental Harassment Authorization stipulation mandating a 120-decibel safety zone for certain groupings of bowhead whales. But that stipulation supported NMFS’s finding of no significant impact for the seismic work. Consequently, NMFS now thinks that it is necessary to address uncertainties regarding the impact of seismic work on bowhead whales “in the context of an EIS.”
Nine alternativesThe draft PEIS lists nine alternative possible actions, in response to proposed seismic surveys.
From these alternatives, PEIS discounts the possibility of banning seismic surveys altogether. The PEIS says that the resulting inability of industry to conduct seismic surveys would hamper MMS “in its ability to ensure fair market value for leases, make royalty relief determinations, conserve oil and gas resources and perform other statutory responsibilities.”
The PEIS also excludes an alternative that envisages doing the surveys with just the stipulations and guidelines associated with a standard Alaska outer continental shelf geological and geophysical permit, saying that the failure of the permit stipulations to incorporate sound level-related exclusion and safety zones, or to address mitigation of impacts on some forms of marine life, would violate the OCS Lands Act.
“This alternative is, therefore, not feasible or acceptable and is not considered further in this analysis,” the draft PEIS says.
The remaining possible alternatives require the acquisition of permits under the terms of the Marine Mammals Protection Act and the Endangered Species Protection Act. These alternatives also involve a range of sizes of whale, seal or walrus safety or exclusion zones around a seismic vessel.
The larger the size of the zone (i.e. the lower the sound level allowed close to an animal), the better the wildlife protection becomes. But large zones are expensive and difficult to monitor, especially given the difficulties of mounting aerial surveillance in the harsh and remote Arctic marine environment. So, the question of deciding what size of zone to mandate becomes a trade-off between the practicality of monitoring the zone and the degree of wildlife protection that is desired.
Zone possibilities range from a 120-decibel safety zone (the largest zone) to a 180/190-decibel exclusion zone (the smallest zone). No seismic surveying would be allowed within the areas of a safety zone around an animal sighting, and seismic activity would have to stop if an animal entered an exclusion zone.
The recognition of the potential for seismic surveys to disrupt the subsistence whale hunts of North Slope villages has also resulted in an alternative that includes operation restrictions offshore the villages of Kaktovik, Nuiqsut and Barrow during the fall bowhead whale migration.
MMS and NMFS have not yet selected a preferred alternative from the list in the PEIS. Eventual selection will depend on an analysis of the various factors and issues raised in the draft PEIS document; a detailed analysis of the environmental impacts described in the PEIS; and the comments received from public review of the draft PEIS, the draft PEIS says.
The agencies have scheduled a program of public hearings on the draft PEIS in Anchorage and in various North Slope communities during April. Written comments must be postmarked no later than May 14, 2007.
The draft PEIS can be found at http://www.mms.gov/alaska/ref/EIS%20EA/draft_arctic_peis/draft_peis.htm.