Just when the beleaguered seismic industry
thought things couldn't get any more challenging, they have.
New federal edicts have been issued recently regarding
seismic acquisition in the Gulf of Mexico — regulations that are
intended to protect marine life from danger, but could limit where
and when data is collected.
Seismic company officials are concerned because if
the new rules prove to be a harbinger of what's to come, such activity
in the GOM may someday suffer the same fate as offshore California.
For the oil and gas industry, that's a scary thought
given the GOM's prominent role in the U.S. energy supply and domestic
In the beginning, the issue was all about sperm whales
and the western Gulf Lease Sale 184 in August. Now, it appears the
impact will be felt Gulf-wide.
In late July, the Minerals Management Service (MMS)
published the final notice for Sale 184, which contained a number
of stipulations, including a multi-faceted stipulation for protected
marine mammal species.
The proviso requires seismic operators to employ
mandatory mitigation measures when conducting surveys over all lease
blocks awarded from the sale.
"This is the first time there have been stipulations
that will affect any and all seismic operations conducted on leases
in a sale," said Chip Gill, president of the Houston-based International
Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC).
"We've been in dialog with the MMS about what they're
going to say in the Environmental Assessment of G&G activities
they've been preparing for two and a half years," he said, "and
they've made it clear they're going to address the impact of seismic
survey noise on marine life.
"Still, we only had a few days notice about the stipulation
One Good Turn … ?
According to Gill, the restriction originated from
an unexpected source — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA) Fisheries (formerly the National Marine Fisheries Service),
which regulates the MMS. NOAA Fisheries is charged with implementing
the Marine Mammals Protection Act.
The lease sale stipulation is set forth as a means
to reduce the potential taking of federally protected species, e.g.,
sea turtles, marine mammals and other listed species. Under the
MMPA, a "take" is statutorily defined as "to harass, hunt, capture
or kill, or to attempt to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine
Among the myriad directives included in the requirement,
one stands out as being particularly onerous:
"MMS will require that all seismic surveys employ
mandatory mitigation measures to include the use of a 180 decibel
(dB) impact zone based on the appropriate water depth, visual observers
and ramp-up procedures. Seismic operations must immediately cease
when a sperm whale is detected within the 180 dB impact zone. Ramp-up
procedures and seismic surveys may be initiated only during daylight."
"The idea is if you're shooting, then the animals
will stay away because of the noise," Gill said "but if you shut
down, they have the opportunity to come in. And at night, you can't
visually observe to know there are no animals in the 180 dB exclusion
In an industry where activity occurs unceasingly
around the clock, the daylight-only restriction for ramp-up (soft
starts) and survey initiation is the really big kicker, according
Needed: A Sound Argument
A question that always surfaces is what to do if a
lease block subject to Sale 184 guidelines sits in the middle of
a larger seismic survey.
It appears this issue has been addressed — at least
for the moment — by happenstance.
According to Gill, the solicitor general caught NOAA
Fisheries off-guard after-the-fact by concluding the terms and conditions
of the stipulation would have to be implemented Gulf-wide rather
than being confined to Sale 184.
The rationale for this decision is fairly straightforward,
considering that sperm whales are a kind of "twofer" in that they
are protected under the MMPA and also the Endangered Species Act
"Under the ESA, any U.S. citizen can charge someone
with 'taking' an endangered or threatened species," said Jeff Childs,
protected species biologist, MMS GOM Region, "but under the MMPA,
only NOAA Fisheries can prosecute you for violations.
"If you're doing a survey under 184 guidelines, you're
protected for 'takes' under both the MMPA and the ESA," Childs said,
"whereas anyone not doing this is vulnerable to being prosecuted
under the ESA. The solicitor general indicated we need to be consistent
across the board and provide protection to everyone."
Childs noted, however, that this is a contentious
issue within MMS that is being discussed at the highest levels of
Meanwhile, he emphasized the need for industry to
prove its acoustic emissions do not negatively impact the species
in question and said both the MMS and industry have much to do research-wise.
At press time, a flurry of meetings with accompanying
legal counsel was occupying the time of certain members of all concerned
agencies and organizations to attempt to better define the stipulation
and address the numerous unanswered questions that prompt one to
ponder just how flawed the requirements might be.
For instance, if an observer is unable to visually
scan for the presence of whales in the 180 dB exclusion zone at
night, does this mean it's okay on a foggy day?
"We've formally requested clarification from the
MMS on numerous points that are not clear," Gill said. "The devil
is going to be in the details."
Whatever the outcome, the industry will have to adjust
its operations accordingly.
"There's no sense in crying," said Jim White, vice-president
multi-client data worldwide at WesternGeco. "We'll just have to
figure out how to make it work.
"It will have a significant impact on the cost of
data," he predicted, "and both multi-client and proprietary bidding
will reflect the cost."