Prior to the August recess, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to discuss the status of applications for geological and geophysical (G&G) permits to perform updated seismic surveys in the Atlantic. The purpose of the hearing was to put pressure on the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to move the process forward in order to provide critical information for its 2017-2022 outer continental shelf (OCS) plan. Although the federal government initiated the process to allow for seismic surveying in this area in January, 2009, to date only one permit has been issued. The updated data is important because the last time seismic surveys in the Atlantic were done was over 30 years ago, and the technology has greatly improved.
BOEM Director Abigail Hopper provided an update on where the nine G&G permits applications for the Atlantic OCS stand (two permits have been withdrawn).Of these nine permits, seven applications include deep penetration seismic, one application (which was recently approved by BOEM) focuses on airborne gravity and magnetic data, and the last one is for a high resolution multi-beam and sub-bottom profiler survey to collect seafloor and shallow surface information. She also discussed the rigorous environmental review process that all of the permits must go through. This includes the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act which is administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
Jim White, President of ARKeX, testified on behalf of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors. ARKeX is a company that collects data from a fixed wing aircraft outside of state waters and measures minute variations in the Earth’s gravitational field and, as mentioned above, their permit has been very recently been approved by BOEM. In his remarks, White said that both seismic and non-seismic studies need to be done in the Atlantic because new technologies are likely to show that there is much more than the 4.7 billion barrels of oil and 37.5 trillion cubic feet that BOEM currently estimates based on the older surveys. He also noted that the new G&G surveys will provide more information about areas where oil and gas exploration is unlikely to be successful, reducing the amount of wells that would be drilled, and will also provide government policymakers the necessary information to make the best decisions regarding oil and gas development in the Atlantic.
Richie Miller, President of Spectrum GEO, a company seeking a G&G permit for a seismic survey, said that the regulatory process has been filled with delays and uncertainty. He said that working with NMFS to obtain an incidental harassment authorization (IHAs) was particularly problematic. Although his company submitted its IHA application in August 2014, Spectrum has heard that the earliest an IHA would be approved would be in early 2016. He also noted that federally funded academic seismic surveys are taking place in the Atlantic already and they do not experience similar delays.
During the question and answer session, Subcommittee Chairman Lamborn (R-C0) noted that the Subcommittee attempted to get a witness from NMFS to discuss why their approval process is so much longer for private companies than it is for academic researchers doing similar work, but the agency declined the request to testify.