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Vol. 19, No. 33 Week of August 17, 2014
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

A continuing plan

Apache applies to NMFS for LOA for five-year Cook Inlet seismic program

Alan Bailey

Petroleum News

Perhaps dispelling some doubts about its commitment to Cook Inlet exploration following some frustration with permit-related issues in its seismic surveying, Apache Alaska Corp. has applied to the National Marine Fisheries Service for a letter of authorization for a five-year program of offshore surveying in the inlet, planned for the period March 2015 to February 2020. The letter of authorization would allow some minor disturbance of marine mammals in the inlet during seismic operations.

The requested authorization would encompass a 1,863-square-mile area of upper Cook Inlet, stretching from just south of Kalgin Island, north to waters west of the northern Kenai Peninsula. Apache’s application does not spell out which specific parts of the authorized area would be surveyed at any particular time within the five-year window, merely stating that the company intends to survey a portion of the total area in any given year.

Seismic needed

After entering the Cook Inlet oil and gas industry in 2010, Apache made it clear that it viewed the acquisition of modern high-resolution seismic data as a key to successful exploration drilling in the Cook Inlet basin. The company embarked on an ambitious three-year program of seismic surveying, with the intent of covering a broad region of onshore and offshore territory. Using a state-of-the-art technique involving the deployment of wireless recording nodes, in late 2011 the company initiated its survey program with an onshore 3-D survey up the west side of the inlet. That survey was followed by an offshore survey along a 15-mile-wide fairway across the northern part of the inlet, designed to tie in with a planned onshore survey in the northern Kenai Peninsula.

But conducting an offshore survey requires authorizations from federal authorities for the potential disturbance to the marine mammals of Cook Inlet. In particular, the inlet is home to the Cook Inlet beluga whale, a mammal population protected as endangered, under the terms of the Endangered Species Act.

Incidental harassment authorizations

Starting in 2012, Apache went through the process of applying to the Fisheries Service for annual incidental harassment authorizations for its offshore surveys. And, given the listed status of the beluga whale, these applications triggered consultations and biological assessments for the potential impacts of the surveys on the whales and their habitat. Ultimately, the Fisheries Service did grant the authorizations, albeit requiring separate authorizations for different sectors of the inlet. Apache expressed frustration at the unpredictable timeframe both for the authorization process, and for the processing of other federal permits such as U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permits for the laying of offshore seismic recording nodes.

Meantime, delays in the issuing of a land use permit for surveying in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge caused Apache to defer the start of the onshore component of its survey program in the northern Kenai Peninsula. Apache did not shoot any seismic in the Cook Inlet basin in 2013.

In February 2014 the company, having obtained the necessary permits, finally embarked on its planned onshore Kenai Peninsula survey, while also restarting some offshore surveying in the northern inlet, under the terms of an incidental harassment authorization issued for 2014.

Letter of authorization

As the initial three-year period of Apache’s seismic program draws to a close, it appears that the surveyed area has fallen well short of what the company had originally hoped. And, rather than continuing the process of making annual applications for incidental harassment authorizations for offshore work, the company is seeking a letter of authorization for a complete five-year program. A letter of authorization, while having the same general purpose as an incidental harassment authorization, involves a more complex application process but can encompass a timeframe longer than a single year, thus presumably eliminating some timing uncertainty once approved.

Apache spokeswoman Lisa Parker told Petroleum News Aug. 11 that the letter of authorization application process involves two public comment periods but that, once the authorization has been issued, no further public comment process is involved. Although the process takes a bit longer initially, ultimately the process becomes simpler both for the company and the permit administrator, Parker said.

Apache’s letter of authorization application says that biological assessments and biological opinions issued under previous incidental harassment authorizations expire in December. The proposed seismic surveying activities potentially impact six marine mammal species: the beluga whale, the killer whale, the harbor porpoise, the gray whale, the harbor seal and the Steller sea lion. Apache is not applying for the authorization of activities that would result in animal injury or death, the company’s application says.

Two source vessels

According to the application, surveying would involve the use of two seismic source vessels, each towing an array of air guns. Recording nodes, used to detect subsurface echoes of sounds from the sources, would be placed on the seafloor along a series of lines, in what is referred to as a “patch.” Upon completion of recording in a patch, the lines of recording nodes would be moved to form the next patch, with a series of patches ultimately providing continuous coverage of an area.

One well

So far, as part of its Cook Inlet exploration program, Apache has drilled just one well, the Kaldachabuna No. 2, onshore the west side of the inlet. Although the results from that well proved disappointing, Apache has said that it remains positive about the potential of the Cook Inlet basin.

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