Regulators rapidly kicking the can down the road


Multiple overlapping seismic survey areas

Multiple overlapping seismic survey areas

I’ve just returned from Washington DC educating legislators and questioning regulators over an ominous situation in the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). Since 2014 there has been a “full court press” by the oil industry and their friends in our government to open up the Atlantic OCS to fossil fuel extraction and production. Despite all of the environmental, scientific, and economic arguments that highlight the risks, impacts, and expense of continuing on the fossil fuel track, the oil industry’s agenda seems thoroughly entrenched in our governmental regulatory process.

This was illustrated to me last Tuesday when I went up to NOAA Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) with a small group of colleagues from Oceana and NRDC to meet with NMFS director Eileen Sobeck. Our mission was to discuss four Incidental Harassment Authorizations (IHAs) that her agency is reviewing right now regarding offshore surveys – three seismic and one multi-beam sonar proposed for the mid-Atlantic OCS.

Incidental Harassment Authorizations are request documents submitted by anyone who is planning an activity that will have some negative impact on marine mammals under the jurisdiction of NMFS. The documents describe the proposed activity and explain the potential for marine mammal harassments or “takes.” It is the responsibility of NMFS to review these IHAs using the “best available science” and determine if the actions will impact only “small numbers” of marine mammals and have no more than “negligible impact on marine mammal species or stocks.”

In principle the IHAs are reviewed and a determination is made as to whether it is consistent with the statute. Then the IHA is either approved or denied. Of course NMFS gets to review these, but because the IHA also concerns public assets, we get to review them as well. And we did. Working with colleagues from Oceana and NRDC we came up with a 211 page critique of the IHAs and where they fell short in terms of the “best available science.”

Setting aside the hubristic conceit that there is some economy in arbitrarily “taking” marine mammals for economic gain, the shortcomings included the use of inadequate propagation models, inconsistent population estimates, the use of antiquated impact thresholds, and omission of the most contemporary literature on impacts.

There is also a glaring problem that there is no consideration for cumulative impacts that will occur from three concurrent surveys being conducted in relatively close proximity. The impacts from each of the IHAs are considered completely independent of each other, so if a group of North Atlantic Right whales needed to escape the area of a survey, they could easily be pushed into an area of another survey. Giving that one of the “mitigation strategies” in the IHAs involves animals clearing out of the survey area, this statutory oversight exposes a serious potential for disaster.

We visited Ms. Sobeck and her staff at NMFS to punctuate our concerns. At the moment it would be hard to determine if the meeting was productive. But I can report that the meeting was icy. Ms. Sobeck’s opening move was to let us know that she is “being pressured from all sides about this issue.” (So much for science.) She also let us know that she couldn’t “continue to pull in more science. At some point a line must be drawn.” She also indicated that NMFS is not obligated to consider the cumulative impacts of duplicative surveys. (So much for scientific thinking…)

So at the moment it does not taste sweet; the Atlantic OCS is at the threshold of a profound transformation. But the ball is still in play and the court of public opinion is on our side. And there is still much work to do…