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GAO: Clarity needed on offshore seismic permitting

Written by  OE Staff Thursday, 04 January 2018 12:17

A recent report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized two agencies – the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) – for slow and disfunctional processes leading to delays in permitting for offshore seismic surveys. 

 Photo from BOEM.

GAO recommends NMFS and FWS clarify how and when their staff record the date of when an incidental take authorization application for a seismic survey is adequate and complete. GAO also recommends the two agencies review their time frames for reviewing incidental harassment authorization (IHA) applications, and compare those with the statutory review time frame.

Oil and gas companies, and entities such as the National Science Foundation, conduct seismic surveys to gather geological data on where oil and gas resources may exist, as well as identifying possible earthquake fault zones, GAO said in the December 2017 report. Companies seeking to conduct seismic surveys must obtain a permit from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), part of the US Department of the Interior.

Because seismic surveys could disturb or injure marine animals, BOEM may require approved “incidental take” authorizations from NMFS and FWS. Several industry stakeholders and a research organization have raised questions about the timeliness of the federal seismic survey permitting process and incidental take authorization application reviews.

GAO’s review – conducted between July 2016 and December 2017 – found NMFS and FWS follow a similar process to BOEM for reviewing incidental take authorization applications. Between 2011 and 2016, BOEM reviewed 297 applications and issued 264 seismic survey permits, and the reviews’ time frames differed by region. In the same time period, NMFS and FWS reviewed 35 and approved 28 such applications across the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, and Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf regions.

However, NMFS was unable to provide GAO with accurate data for the dates the agency determines an application is adequate and complete, and FWS does not record this date. Based on GAO’s recovery of NMFS data, in at least two cases, the date NMFS recorded the application adequate and complete was after the date when the proposed authorization was published in the Federal Register.

“Federal internal control standards call for agencies to use quality information,” GAO stated in the report. “Without guidance on how to accurately record review dates, agencies and applicants will continue to have uncertainty around review time frames.”

The Marine Mammal Protection Act calls for the agencies to review one type of incidental take authorization application – incidental harassment authorization applications – within 120 days of receiving an application for such authorizations, GAO said. But NMFS and FWS have not conducted an analysis of their review time frames. GAO’s interviews with industry representatives, scientific researchers, and agency officials also found that the issuance of incidental harassment authorizations often takes longer than the 120-day statutory period.

“Not conducting an analysis is inconsistent with federal internal control standards that call for agency management to design control activities to achieve objectives and respond to risks,” GAO said. “Without analyzing the review time frames for incidental harassment authorization applications and comparing them to statutory review time frames, NMFS and FWS are unable to determine whether they are meeting their objectives to complete reviews in the 120-day statutory time frame.”

GAO said the two agencies have partially accepted their recommendations.

“Seismic research is vital to unlocking energy potential off our coasts, and federal red tape is standing in the way," says House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT), following the report's release. "GAO’s report highlights the bureaucratic dysfunction, lack of transparency and blatant abuses of discretion that has stalled greater exploration and development. Congress has an obligation to take corrective action, and with the passage of the SECURE American Energy Act, we will.”

Nikki Martin, president of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC), expressed frustration with NMFS and FWS and the slow permit application and authorization process, saying, "While the Marine Mammal Protection Act requires the agencies to make decisions on IHA applications within 120 days, IAGC members' applications for seismic in the Atlantic OCS have been pending for 892 days." She further called the delays, "unwarranted" and "a complete bureaucractic breakdown."

"We urge NMFS to implement guidance to aid analysts and applicants to track when applications are adequate and complete, acknowledge their failure to meet existing statutory timelines, and issue decisions on the five pending Atlantic seismic IHA applications without further delay," Martin said.

National Ocean Indutries Association President Randal Luthi agreed with Martin's assesment, saying that "the report confirms what the oil and gas industry has said all along: the process is flawed, arbitrary, and dysfunctional." Luthi said he hopes the report “opens the door for action” at NMFS and FWS to correct the process.

In May last year, the US Department of the Interior said it would move forward with evaluating applications from six companies to conduct geological and geophysical activities in the Atlantic Ocean. Those permits were denied after former President Obama said he would ban the offshore Atlantic and Arctic regions from future oil and gas drilling.

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