The National Marine Fisheries Service in conjunction with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has issued a new draft version of its environmental impact statement, or EIS, for future oil and gas exploration activities in the Alaska Arctic offshore. The new draft document includes options for up to four exploration drilling programs per year in the Beaufort Sea and up to four drilling programs per year in the Chukchi Sea — an earlier draft, published in December 2011, had only considered the possibility of up to two drilling programs in each sea.
One alternative that includes the expanded drilling provision also eliminates some timed closures of environmentally sensitive areas included in the 2011 draft.
Response to concernsThe revised document clearly represents the Fisheries Service’s response to concerns expressed by the oil industry about the earlier draft. The industry had commented that, with the limits of two drilling programs per year being less than the number of companies operating offshore leases in the Arctic region, the EIS had contained no options allowing all companies to explore leases they had purchased from the government.
The new draft EIS, while addressing the industry concerns, still contains a range of alternatives, including a “no-action” alternative to prohibit future oil and gas exploration. The two government agencies involved in preparing the EIS have yet to choose a preferred alternative that would lead to a final rule on future permitting. Some environmental organizations, concerned about what they see as unacceptable environmental risks in Arctic offshore oil and gas development, have urged the agencies to adopt the no-action alternative.
Future policiesThe final EIS and its associated agency ruling will set future policies for the terms under which incidental harassment authorizations and seismic survey permits will be issued, while also providing a framework for the types of mitigation measures that companies will be required to put in place to minimize environmental impacts from their offshore exploration activities.
The Fisheries Service will be accepting comments on the new draft document through May 28 and the agency is scheduling a series of public meetings during the week of April 8 as part of the comment-gathering process. The North Slope Borough and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission have been working with the federal agencies on the EIS. The Fisheries Service is an agency within NOAA.
UnusualThe EIS is unusual in that it is being prepared in expectation of future permit applications, rather than in response to any specific application from a would-be offshore explorer — normally an EIS, prepared under the terms of the National Environmental Policy Act, is a response to a specific proposed action that may have a significant environmental impact and that involves the federal government in some way. In the case of this particular EIS, the “proposed actions” triggering the EIS are the anticipated need for the Fisheries Service to issue authorizations for the “incidental take” of marine mammals during future exploration activities, and anticipated requests for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to authorize permits for future geophysical surveys on the federal outer continental shelf. And, because the Fisheries Service authorizations are required in any offshore area, the permit ruling spawned from the EIS will apply to Alaska state waters within three miles of the shoreline as well as federal waters further offshore.
Began in 2006The history of the EIS goes back to an effort in 2006 by the U.S. Minerals Management Service, the precursor agency to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, to conduct a programmatic environmental assessment for the multiple seismic surveys anticipated for the Arctic outer continental shelf in response to an upsurge in interest in exploration of the Arctic offshore. Over time, with concerns about the possible cumulative impacts of multiple exploration programs, the original assessment morphed into an EIS encompassing both seismic surveys and exploration drilling, with the Fisheries Service as the lead agency in the EIS preparation.
In responding to the issue of the new draft EIS, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, expressed skepticism about whether the EIS is actually needed, given the mandated environmental reviews that already occur at various stages of the offshore oil leasing, exploration and development life cycle.
“While I appreciate NOAA’s decision to take a second look at the EIS, I continue to believe it’s unnecessary for the agency to conduct this review,” Murkowski said. “I remain concerned about the scope of the EIS and the potential for area closures and additional mitigation and technological requirements to result in a de facto moratorium on the development of oil and gas in the Arctic. I have long said that we should move forward with development in the Arctic only if it can be done safely, but don’t believe this EIS contributes to that goal.”
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, welcomed the Fisheries Service’s willingness to expand the drilling options to more realistic levels. Begich said that he had urged NOAA to work with the Interagency Working Group for Alaska, a consortium of federal agencies set up by President Obama to streamline federal permitting in Alaska.
“This is real progress,” Begich said. “The fact that NOAA heard what the (congressional) delegation and I had to say, worked with other federal agencies, and came back with an expanded document shows that the Interagency Working Group is really beginning to understand Alaska. Having said that, it’s a big document, and we still have a lot of work ahead of us to ensure all agencies and stakeholders are working together. We need to make sure to balance responsible offshore oil and gas development with protection for the subsistence resources that have sustained North Slope residents for centuries.”
Six alternativesThe revised draft EIS proposes six alternatives for an eventual ruling on the future of incidental take authorizations and seismic permits for the Arctic offshore.
Alternative 1: A no-action alternative that would prohibit the future issue of authorizations and permits.
Alternative 2: The annual possibility of up to four seismic surveys in the Beaufort Sea and up to three seismic surveys in the Chukchi Sea; up to three site clearance and shallow hazard survey programs in each sea; one on-ice survey in the Beaufort Sea; and one exploration drilling program in each sea.
Alternative 3: The annual possibility of up to six seismic surveys in the Beaufort Sea and up to five seismic surveys in the Chukchi Sea; up to five site clearance and shallow hazard survey programs in each sea; one on-ice survey in the Beaufort Sea; and up to two exploration drilling programs in each sea.
Alternative 4: The same as alternative three, but allowing up to four concurrent drilling programs annually in each sea.
Alternative 5: The same as alternative four, but with some mandated timed closures of environmentally sensitive areas.
Alternative 6: The same as alternative four, but with the potential inclusion of a broader range of mitigation measures to reduce impacts on marine mammals, and with a requirement for the use of some alternative seismic technologies for reducing environmental impacts.
The EIS defines a single drilling program as a series of drilling operations conducted by company using a single marine drilling unit, with no concurrent drilling of multiple wells.
Adverse impactsIn assessing the overall potential environmental impacts of the various alternatives, the draft EIS says that, other than the no-action alternative, actions under all alternatives “would cause moderate adverse impacts to bowhead and beluga whales from noise disturbance, risk of ship strikes and habitat degradation.” Bowhead and beluga whales are two whale species commonly found in Alaska’s Arctic waters.
The EIS also says that the increased drilling activity that would be allowed under alternative four “could increase the impact level to major adverse for bowhead whales.” However, the time/area closures envisaged under alternative five could reduce the impacts of the drilling to moderate levels by redistributing the locations of drilling activities and preventing drilling activities at certain times in locations where environmental impacts would be particularly significant, the EIS says.
And, while the use of alternative seismic technologies as envisaged under alternative six could reduce environmental impacts “on a small scale,” the benefits of using these technologies are as yet difficult to determine, the draft EIS says.
The draft EIS also includes an analysis of the potential impact of a hypothetical very large oil spill in the Beaufort Sea during an exploration drilling activity. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management presented a similar very large oil spill analysis in its revised EIS for the 2008 Chukchi Sea lease sale.
The EIS characterizes a very large oil spill in the Beaufort Sea as having a low probability.
But the oil spill analysis concludes that a spill of this type would have major impacts on multiple environmental resources including water quality, bird life and whales, while having minor to moderate adverse impacts on seals, walrus, terrestrial mammals and cultural resources. Impact on air quality would be minor, the EIS says.