Strangers in the Night: A Critical Analysis of Regulatory Guidelines for Mitigation Measures Pertaining to Seismic Exploration in the Gulf of Mexico
Crotty, Colleen Janet
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The United States fundamentally depends on crude oil and natural gas for energy and production of goods. Subsurface oil in the federal offshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico is a critical resource for the country in this regard, providing 17% of the nation’s crude oil production (U.S. Energy Information Department, n.d.). These reserves are detected through the use of geophysical seismic exploration vessels, which use high-powered seismic airgun acoustics to map the substrata of the ocean floor. These seismic airguns operate at very high volume, which pose a threat to the hearing and sonar capabilities of numerous protected marine mammals, as well as endangered sea turtle species, within the Gulf of Mexico. The federal government regulates offshore leases for oil and gas through the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and monitors compliance via the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). These agencies, in turn, issue a regulatory guidance document, the Joint Notice to Lessees No. 2012-G02 (BOEM, 2012a), which instructs seismic operators how to proceed with production operations and implement mitigation measures in this region to minimize risk to protected species. The NTL aspires to reduce, to the greatest extent practicable, the impact of seismic surveys on species protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act by establishing a protected 500-meter exclusion zone around the seismic airguns and applying mitigation measures relevant to selected species within that zone. However, in some instances the guidelines can both under- and over-mitigate, to the detriment of both the fauna and to the lessee energy companies. Here, I (1) review the basis for, and current state of, the NTL; (2) assess whether the current guidelines meet their goals; and (3) make recommendations for updating the NTL to align with current in-field practices, providing more clarity to seismic operators and aligning the text of the NTL with its goal of protecting marine mammals and sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico. Regulatory transparency and certainty are staples of good governance, and my recommendations seek to modernize antiquated guidelines to support these goals.
- Marine affairs