The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently published in the Federal Register a proposal to introduce new regulations for authorizing the incidental take of walrus and polar bears during oil and gas exploration activities in the Chukchi Sea, and on the adjacent west coast of Alaska. Similar regulations already apply to the neighboring Beaufort Sea but have never been established for the Chukchi.
Fish and Wildlife Service, or FWS, administers the incidental take management of walrus and polar bears under the terms of the Marine Mammals Protection Act, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service administers a similar incidental take program for seals, porpoises and whales.
The proposed regulations specify a set of stipulations that oil and gas explorers need to work within to ensure compliance with the Marine Mammals Protection Act, when carrying out an operation that might incidentally harass the relevant animals.
The new regulations would remain in effect for five years from the date of issue.
In the absence of regulations, FWS has to issue what is known as an Incidental Harassment Authorization, or IHA, for each individual exploration project, such as a seismic survey. But the new regulations would specify a set of stipulations under which FWS could issue longer-term letters of authorization for exploration programs.
Industry requestIn August 2006, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association asked FWS to issue regulations for the Chukchi Sea. The agency obtained information about potential exploration activities from a draft Chukchi environmental impact statement prepared by the U.S. Mineral Management Service and from the oil and gas industry.
Exploration activities potentially include 3-D and 2-D seismic surveys in the Chukchi Sea; site clearance activities associated with future well sites; offshore drilling operations using anchored drill ships; and onshore seismic surveying and drilling near the Chukchi coast, according to the Federal Register notice.
Based on estimates of the level of exploration activity, FWS assumed the possibility of four seismic survey vessels in simultaneous operation, perhaps as many as six site surveys in a year and the drilling of up to four wells per season. FWS also mentions the possibility that ConocoPhillips could carry out onshore seismic operations and drill up to five wells south of Barrow, near the Walakpa gas field up to three of those wells could be drilled on private land in the winter of 2007. (Petroleum News has reported just one such well drilled this past winter.)
An environmental assessment by the agency has determined that this level of exploration activity can take place, provided that the activities are carried out within the terms of the stipulations spelled out in the proposed regulations.
We propose a finding that the total expected takings of walruses and polar bears during oil and gas industry exploration activities will have a negligible impact on these species and will not have an unmitigatable adverse impact on the availability of these species for subsistence use by Alaska Natives, FWS said in its Federal Register notice. The regulations that we propose to issue include permissible methods of non-lethal taking, measures to ensure the least practicable adverse impact on the species and the availability of these species for subsistence uses, and requirements for monitoring and reporting.
FWS anticipates some Chukchi region exploration activity starting in early July, before the agency will be able to make a final determination of any required letters of authorization under the proposed regulations. Consequently, the agency is treating the proposed regulations as if they were a proposed IHA for the 2007 open water season. Thus, if the regulations are finalized, the regulations will authorize the incidental take of small numbers walruses and polar bears from oil and gas activities during that season.
General requirementsUnder the proposed regulations, anyone conducting exploration activities in the Chukchi region must have an FWS-approved marine mammal monitoring and mitigation plan and a polar bear interaction plan.
Operators must minimize the impact of their operations on walruses and polar bears and on the availability of these animals for subsistence use by local communities. Prior to obtaining a letter of authorization from FWS, operators must consult with affected communities and marine mammal management groups to discuss potential conflicts with subsistence hunting. And, if there is potential for conflicts with subsistence use activities, the operator must file a plan of cooperation that has been agreed upon by the appropriate Native communities.
In particular, FWS will not authorize seismic or drilling activities within 40 miles of the communities of Barrow, Wainwright, Point Hope or Point Lay without the agreement of those communities.
In addition, marine vessels must maintain a distance of at half-a-mile from any group of walrus hauled out on land, and aircraft must maintain an altitude of at least 1,000 feet within half-a-mile of a haul out.
An operator must have a qualified marine mammal observer and may have to deploy trained marine mammal observers with all offshore activities.
Seismic stipulationsA key stipulation for seismic operations is the need to maintain a 180-decibel exclusion zone around a seismic vessel for walrus and a 190-decibel exclusion zone for polar bears. Monitoring of the exclusion zones by wildlife observers will ensure that no animals of the appropriate types enter an exclusion zone seismic activity will not commence until the zone is clear of the animals and, if any animals subsequently enter the zone, seismic operations must immediately cease.
Seismic operators must record and report to FWS any observed impacts on marine mammals and must report any instances of operation shutdown that result from an animal encroaching into an exclusion zone.
Other stipulations include a minimum spacing of 15 miles between seismic source vessels that are conducting simultaneous operations.
Comments on the proposed regulations and an associated FWS environmental assessment must reach FWS on or before July 2; comments on information collection requirements associated with the regulations must reach FWS on or before July 31.