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Companies await permits for Alaska Arctic seismic exploration

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder

As Arctic ice quickly succumbs to summer sun, several major energy companies are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to make good use of open ocean for exploration. Shell Oil, Norwegian geoscience company TGS, and SAExploration have all submitted requests to the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management to conduct seismic exploration projects this summer.

Those requests are pending, awaiting permits from BOEM and approval from other federal organizations like U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. While they haven't been given the go ahead at this point, all of these projects are slated to start in July should the permits be granted.

While many in Alaska are eager to herald continued investment in the state's oil and gas industry, others are concerned about the potential short- and long-term impact of exploration activities like seismic reflection.

A large ship towing an array of powerful air guns typically executes a seismic survey.

"(They) generate sound waves by firing off explosive blasts of air," states an Alaska Marine Conservation Council release. "The sound waves are reflected off the seafloor and create a picture of underwater geological formations. A typical seismic survey lasts 2 to 3 weeks and covers a range of about 300-600 miles. The intensity of sound waves produced by the firing of seismic air guns can reach up to 250 decibels (dB) near the source and can be as high as 117 dB over 20 miles away. The sound intensity produced by a jackhammer is around 120 dB, which can damage human ears in as little as 15 seconds."

Daniel Lum, an Alaskan author originally from Barrow, is concerned about the level of disruption that repeated seismic exploration in Arctic waters may cause. He is especially concerned for the marine mammals and other critters that rely on sound rather than sight to navigate their ocean world.

It's not just the isolated effect of one project we need to consider, he said, but the cumulative effects of extensive seismic exploration. In U.S. waters, combined with the effects of Russian and Canadian exploration permits on the Outer Continental Shelf as well. Both countries have proposals for seismic exploration permits in their Arctic waters as well.

"From Russian Chukchi seismic exploration to Alaskan Chukchi and Beaufort exploration through to Canadian Beaufort seismic exploration," Lum said, "a giant level of seismic, thunderous pulses are going to occur in nearly all ranges of the Alaskan Arctic Ocean."

While representatives at BOEM say the practice is a relatively small threat to marine life, Lum is not sure those effects are well understood or documented.

"There will be unprecedented levels of seismic exploration in 2013 from Russian waters," Lum said, "through Alaskan seas all of the way to the Canadian Beaufort.  Huge levels of seismic noise pollution will have unknown effects in the total ranges of several marine mammal species, particularly those mammals that use echo location as a means of navigation."

Lum, and others who have been outspoken against continued exploration, believe that the scientific and industrial communities are underestimating the potential impact of seismic exploration and cannot assure the safe conduction of multiple projects in the same area - especially with consideration to multiple nations conducting surveys.

"We are left here with an incredible amount of seismic exploration in an increasingly unstable marine environment, with no collaboration between governments to understand the bigger picture," Lum said.  "Cumulative studies must be done to understand what will really happen.  With so much seismic development, deflection will certainly occur throughout the wide span across the Chukchi and Beaufort."

John Callahan, of BOEM public affairs Alaska, is confident in BOEM's process for taking all shelf exploration into account when considering permit approval.

"BOEM is required by applicable statute and regulation to evaluate each proposed project in light of regulatory performance standards," Callahan said. "It should be noted, however, that when BOEM evaluates a proposal, this evaluation specifically considers not only that proposal but also the cumulative impacts of that proposal and the other projects expected to occur on the OCS. BOEM will not approve a proposal that would cause undue or serious cumulative impacts to the environment."

Callahan also believes that the science is there to back up the safety of this type of exploration. Keeping in mind that these particular projects are still pending approval, the general practice of seismic tests are not overtly harmful, he said.

"With respect to seismic surveys in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas," Callahan said, "numerous BOEM and (National Marine Fisheries Service) analyses have shown that such activities typically do not cause significant adverse impacts to the environment. Therefore, BOEM conducts its NEPA review of seismic surveys via Environmental Assessment or Categorical Exclusion Review."

There is typically a public comment period when developing these assessments, Callahan said.

"During this period," he said, "BOEM asks the public and stakeholders to identify issues for the agency to consider when preparing the EA. The length of these public comment periods varies depending on the complexity of the issue, the proposed start date of the project, and other relevant factors."

That being said, BOEM is not necessarily required to solicit public testimony, Callahan said, when reviewing proposals for surveys or ancillary activities. Though it often does as a part of its National Environmental Policy Act review of those proposals.

Lum is concerned that public comment on this summer's seismic exploration was far too limited to be effective.

"Commenters for both Alaskan seismic permits were given 16 days or less to come up with reasonable commentary to development of such a huge magnitude," Lum said. "This appears to be an attempt to streamline the permitting process by reducing the amount of time (and in parallel the ability to comment effectively) the comment process allows."

Along that same vein, Lum worries that the size and scope of this initial exploration activity is not well understood by those it has the potential to affect most directly.

"People in the villages of the North Slope of Alaska do not realize the magnitude of developmental exploration in so many ranges of the Chukchi and Beaufort," Lum said. "Hundreds and hundreds of community meetings with industry and agencies have resulted in disillusionment with the whole process.  But this exploration signifies the coming storm of offshore oil rigs and the hazards that come with them." 

Callahan cited the significant time and resources that BOEM has invested in evaluating the impacts of these preliminary exploration activities.

"Since 1973, the agency has invested more than $425 million studying the OCS environment off Alaska and has developed more than 500 technical reports," Callahan said. "The bureau has also played a major role in scientific research on this subject, funding more than $15 million in marine acoustic-focused studies in the past decade alone."

While the exploration method has proven to have some effect, he said, it does not represent a significant threat.

"Based on the extensive data that has been gathered over the past decades," Callahan said, "BOEM has concluded in previous NEPA analyses that multiple seismic surveys could yield some likelihood of cumulative effects on marine life, but these effects are expected to be temporary and unlikely to cause population level effects."

BOEM recently teamed up with the National Marine Fisheries Service to develop a comprehensive analysis regarding the cumulative effects of seismic and other exploration activities in the Arctic on marine life, habitat and other natural resources. The Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement can be found on the NMFS website and is open for public comment until June 27.

Public hearings on that EIS were held in April in Kotzebue, Barrow and Anchorage.

The projects awaiting approval in U.S. Arctic waters include open water marine surveys by Shell in the Chukchi Sea, aimed at gathering data for ice gouge and shallow hazards, Callahan said.

"These surveys are continuations of similar data acquisition programs conducted by Shell in the Beaufort Sea beginning in 2006, and in the Chukchi in 2008," he said.

That project, if approved, is slated for mid-July to mid-October.

Also on the list for that time period is a TGS open water 2D seismic survey in the Chukchi Sea.

SAExploration is hoping to begin its ocean bottom node seismic survey in the Beaufort Sea and Colville River Delta around July 1.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission. Contact the editor about this article at editor(at)@thearcticsounder.com.