Feds seek input on deep-water permitting

Mid-Atlantic survey first step in oil/gas drilling
Two Texas companies have requested permission to perform surveys off the Delaware coast for potential oil and gas reserves. GX Technology Corporation and Spectrum Geo Inc. applied for permits to do deep-penetration seismic surveys on the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) hosted open houses on April 2 in Dover, as part of the geological and geophysical (G&G) permitting process on the Atlantic Coast.

Eight companies in all applied to scan the underwater terrain of the Mid- and South-Atlantic Ocean.

Both based in Houston, GXT and Spectrum requested to survey offshore (sometimes hundreds of miles away) of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina (plus Florida, Georgia and South Carolina for GXT).

They plan to use two-dimensional (2D) deep-penetration seismic surveys.

Public comments on the applications can be made to BOEM until April 29.

What seismic surveys look like

During the survey process, each company has a ship with airguns towed behind it. The airguns shoot sound waves strong enough to penetrate the undersea rock. Those sound waves echo back to streamers that stretch behind the ship. Based on the “reflection” of those waves, they show the different layers of rock, creating a picture of where oil may be located.

Ships travel in a grid pattern anywhere from 2.5 to 70 miles wide.

“This type of survey is used to … study the regional geology over a large area,” both applications read. It’s a more economical way to gather data, they said. “The information acquired is then used to determine potential areas of interest, as well as areas that are not of interest, for further exploration.

The ship moves continuously, even if the air guns are silenced. It’s pulling 10 miles of “streamers” (a half-mile wide) that pick up the airwaves, collecting data that will produce the underwater map of the undersea sediment.

The goal

As part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, BOEM “manages the sale and responsible development of off-shore mineral energy resources on the outer-continental shelf.”

But BOEM isn’t the only agency reading this paperwork. The permits are officially reviewed by at least a half-dozen governmental agencies, including National Marine Fisheries Service.

“Permits have not been issued. There is no drilling authorized yet. That’s important to know,” said Marjorie Weisskohl of BOEM Public Affairs.

The applications may get a response as early as this summer, she added.

Between their results and federal research, BOEM may create an underwater lease site. Gas companies could bid on that site, and the winner may be permitted to get rights to that site, determining if it wishes to drill for oil.

“You don’t know what’s on the ocean floor. We’re here today to talk about [the technologies used to do that],” Weisskohl said.

“We do not have an oil and gas program in the Atlantic,” Weisskohl emphasized, although the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico have had these “for a long time.”

Before that could ever happen, BOEM needs to find out what is there, and the environmental impacts.

Every five years, BOEM publishes a schedule of lease sales.

“Ultimately, in 2017, we should be publishing for the areas that will be offered up for lease sale in 2017 to 2022.”

Eventually, one lease site will open somewhere between the middle of Florida’s eastern coast and the Delaware Bay, but Weisskohl couldn’t say how large that site could be. (“It depends on what the companies find.”)

From 1976 to 1983, Atlantic lease sales were held nine times, said Michael Celata, deputy regional director for BOEM. Although companies found reason to pay the U.S. government for a right to bid on the sites, only a fraction of underwater sites ever produced what they were looking for.

Applications and comment forms online

“We want people to understand what that entails,” Celata said of the process. “We want people to have factual information.”

All 10 applications are located online at www.boem.gov/

To comment on applications, visit www.regulations.gov and search for (use application code “E14-003” for GX Technology and “E14-009” for Spectrum).

To learn more about the Atlantic G&G process, visit www.boem.gov/Atlantic-G-and-G-Permitting.

Delaware has a say

With potential impacts to fishing, the Delaware Coastal Management Program will also comment on the applications.

Delawareans were invited to share information on commercial or recreational fishing that may be impacted by seismic surveying.

The State of Delaware has already stated that it wants no offshore gas drilling, noted DCMP’s Tricia Arndt.

“There is to be no drilling for oil and gas in next five years” in Delaware waters, she said.

At this point, the permits would just be to look around, not necessarily drill.

DCMP is also working with its Maryland counterparts on this issue.

The deadline has passed to participate in Delaware Coastal Program’s comment process, but additional Delaware maps and impacts are available at www.dnrec.delaware.gov/coastal/Pages/CoastalPrograms.aspx.

Avoiding sealife

Sea animals can be impacted by seismic technology, so several mitigation tactics are employed to try to prevent excessive harm to sealife, based on decades of BOEM research.

Every species reacts differently to the seismic blasts, according to Stan Labak, of acoustics and modeling. Generally, big baleen whales are the most susceptible (because their hearing is in the same range as the seismic gun), followed by toothed whales and dolphins, pinnipeds including seals and manatees, then sea turtles. Those latter animals might hear the noise but are less likely to change their behavior because of it.

Labak said seismic guns are different from Navy sonar, which has been the source of concern for inadvertently traumatizing whales with loud sonar pings that disorient the whales, sometimes causing mass beach strandings.

Besides a visual lookout watching for marine life, the survey ships listen for underwater animals. Based on the intensity of the survey equipment, ships must immediately stop the seismic guns if mammals or sea turtles come within 200 or 500 meters of the ship (with possible exceptions of dolphins that voluntarily approach to ride the ship’s wake.)

Air guns are also ramped up incrementally, allowing marine life to clear the area.

Opposition already voiced

Not everybody wants deep-water surveys and drilling.

“Do we want an industrial park in the ocean?” asked John Weber, Surfrider’s Mid-Atlantic regional manager. “The risk doesn’t outweigh the reward.”

The tax revenue that might come in from gasoline sales is less than the risk if another BP Deepwater Horizon spill occurred, Weber said.

Plus, powerful seismic cannons can’t help but to injure sea life, others said.

“It’s gotta penetrate two miles into the earth. That’s how deep it’s gotta go,” added John Doerfler, vice chair of the Delaware Surfrider Chapter.