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Ocean Noise
E & E News, June 14, 2011

Obama admin to assess effects of seismic surveys on whales and dolphins
By Allison Winter

The Obama administration is launching a new investigation into how seismic surveys for oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico affect whales and dolphins.

The review by the National Marine Fisheries Service could lead to new regulations overseeing the exploration projects, which oil and gas companies can currently conduct without special wildlife permits.

In a notice in today's Federal Register, NMFS said it would prepare a "letter of authorization" to assess whether seismic surveys comply with the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The review will cover surveys in the Gulf, one of the most intensely prospected oil and gas regions, over five years.

Wildlife biologists with the fisheries service have previously consulted on how seismic surveys could affect endangered species, according to NMFS, but the new study will be the first time the agency has assessed the activities' potential effects on the wide range of marine mammals.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, the U.S. government agency responsible for permitting oil exploration in the Gulf, requested the move. That marks a change of course for the oil and gas regulators, who have previously given permits for seismic exploration without seeking a review under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The Obama administration has faced mounting legal challenges for that practice. A coalition of environmental groups sued the Interior Department last year in an effort to scrap a 2004 programmatic environmental review that guides how the agency approves seismic projects.

And in a separate legal challenge earlier this year, the groups threatened to sue the government to halt the approval of the first 10 seismic exploration projects since the deepwater drilling moratorium was lifted last October (Greenwire, April 20). The groups and the Interior Department are currently in settlement negotiations over those suits.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups say the government has violated the law by avoiding the authorizations from federal wildlife officials. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 requires an authorization for any federal project that could harm or disturb marine mammals.

Michael Jasny, a senior policy analyst for NRDC, said today's announcement is "welcome but also long overdue."

"Right now, there are seismic surveys taking place all over the Gulf without any permits under MMPA," Jasny said. "The fundamental principle of environmental law is that you look before you leap, and here, the agencies and industry are still leaping, leaping, leaping without having actually issued regulations that could reduce the harm."

Before they sink a drill bit into the seafloor, energy companies depend on detailed seismic reports to guide them to the most promising pockets of oil or gas. The seismic data are gathered by emitting powerful blasts of up to 250 decibels from surface ships to reveal the shapes and densities of sub-sea formations. Dozens of air guns fire in tandem, making loud sounds in the ocean for sometimes weeks on end.

Marine mammals rely on their hearing for feeding and calving. The blasts are nearly loud enough to cause hearing loss in marine mammals and can disturb critical behaviors such as feeding and breeding, environmentalists say. The blasts can also mask communications between individual whales and dolphins.

The assessment could potentially require oil and gas regulators to avoid certain habitat, restrict seismic activity during dolphins' calving season or call for changes in the technology used for seismic exploration.

A report released last December by Interior's inspector general suggests the agency suppressed findings of significant impacts from seismic activities to facilitate development.

Seismic firms have included some new mitigation steps in recent years, such as gradually ramping up blast volumes and hiring visual observers to watch for the presence of marine mammals.

They also argue that seismic exploration helps limit the amount of wells that need to be drilled in the first place, reducing both the cost and environmental risks of offshore development.

© 1996-2011 E&E Publishing, LLC

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton