In late May, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to discuss the Bureau of Ocean Management’s (BOEM’s) proposed five year plan, which would run from 2017-2022. In her opening statement, Chairman Murkowski (R-AK) expressed her frustration with the fact that there are just three lease sales in Alaska with limited acreage included in the proposal. She also expressed her concern that the proposed Alaskan lease sales may not be included in the final plan, although there is unanimous support for them in the Alaskan Congressional delegation and by Governor Walker. Ranking Member Cantwell (D-WA) said there are many risks associated with offshore oil and gas development and that she supports BOEM’s proposed plan, including its decision to remove the lease sale in the Atlantic.
In her testimony, BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper outlined the process the Bureau is taking to finalize the five year program for 2017-2022. The proposed program, which was released in March, included 13 potential lease sales - ten of these would be in the Gulf of Mexico and three in Alaska. Hopper also noted that the sale that was proposed for the Atlantic was removed from the program after weighing several factors. These factors included: conflicts with other uses of the ocean, including defense and commercial activities, current market conditions, and opposition from some coastal communities. The comment period for the proposed program will end on June 16, 2016 and a final program is expected to be issued before the end the year.
Dr. James Knapp, Professor in the School of Earth Ocean and Environment at the University of South Carolina (and also an AAPG member) discussed the need for new seismic surveys to be conducted in the Atlantic. He said that seismic surveys have not been conducted in the Atlantic since the 1980’s and that the seismic that was performed was done with 2-D seismic reflection, which is not as high resolution as seismic techniques that are available today. He noted that this older seismic data has been helpful in identifying faults that could trigger earthquakes and tsunamis that could impact coastal communities. This data has also been used to determine the potential for developing offshore wind and the feasibility of CO2 storage offshore. Dr. Knapp also noted that as much as 80 percent of the area that was included in the draft five year plan for the Atlantic has “not been evaluated with commercial seismic surveys”. Therefore, he urged BOEM to move forward with the permitting process for the new geological and geophysical activities that have already been authorized so detailed information will be available to determine which areas would be the most fruitful for oil and gas development should the Atlantic be included in a future 5 year program.
During the question and answer session, Senator Cassidy (R-LA) asked Director Hopper to elaborate on BOEMs rationale for dropping the Atlantic out of the program. He noted that there was strong support amongst governors and legislators in southeastern states for oil and gas development. Hopper said that this political support was taken into consideration, but it did not outweigh other factors such as opposition from coastal communities and impacts on marine life. Senator Cassidy also asked Hopper why BOEM is allowing for offshore wind development in the Atlantic if the Bureau does not think that oil and gas development would be safe. Hopper said that BOEM sees offshore wind development as a much safer process since there is no risk of a spill.