Deal With Feds Will Protect Marine Life

     (CN) – The U.S. government has given environmentalists some concessions to settle claims it failed to protect whales and dolphins from seismic air gun surveys in the Gulf of Mexico.
     Under the settlement agreement filed Thursday, the government must conduct an environmental review of the effects of seismic exploration surveys and other geological activities on marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico.
     U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey must now decide whether to approve the settlement to the 2010 lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and three other groups.
     The environmentalists had taken aim at a 2004 “finding of no significant impact” from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement regarding seismic surveys in the Gulf.
     A seismic survey is the name given to the array intense blasts of compressed air that high-powered air guns shoot into the water every 10 to 12 seconds, for weeks or months at a time, searching for oil and gas reserves, according to the NRDC.
     “The noise they produce is almost as intense as dynamite, which air guns replaced in the mid-1950s,” the group said in a statement. “Each year industry routinely conducts dozens of ‘seismic’ exploration surveys in the northern Gulf, one of the most highly prospected bodies of water on the planet.”
     Environmentalists take issue with these deafening blasts because they interfere with the ability of whales, dolphins and other marine mammals to breed, navigate, communicate and find food.
     Air gun noise in the open ocean is so loud it causes many animals to abandon their habitats, while closer to shore it “can cause hearing loss, injury and potentially death,” the NRDC said.
     The groups also complained that the government had approved a programmatic environmental assessment for surveys and other geophysical activities.
     By failing to analyze how individual and cumulative seismic surveys would affect marine life, and failing to include enough alternatives or adequate mitigation measures to high-intensity air guns, the federal agency had violated the National Environmental Protection Act [NEPA], according to the complaint.
     The groups also claimed the bureau’s refusal to prepare thorough environmental studies before issuing permits to oil and gas companies makes it harder for the Gulf’s marine mammal populations to recover from the disastrous Deepwater Horizon spill.
     “These populations include the Gulf’s coastal bottlenose dolphins, which have undergone a severe die-off since the spill; its resident population of Bryde’s whales, of which fewer than 50 individuals are believed to remain; and its small population of sperm whales, whose nursery in Mississippi Canyon was ground zero for the spill,” the NRDC said in a statement.
     Among other things, Thursday’s settlement bans air gun detonation in four biologically sensitive areas. It also establishes “mandatory minimum separation distances between surveys;” extends protection to endangered manatees; and bans air gun use during the bottlenose dolphin’s calving season, the NRDC said.
     The agreement also changes how oil and gas companies apply for permits to conduct seismic surveys.
     Chevron had intervened as defendant in the lawsuit along with the American Petroleum Institute, the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, and the U.S. Oil and Gas Association. Representatives from each also signed the settlement.
     They must now prove that surveys are not duplicative and estimate the decibel levels of each air gun they will use. The deal also requires companies to verify that their instruments are calibrated to the “lowest sound intensity level that still achieves the survey’s goals.”
     Surveyors must also confirm that they are following the minimum distance requirements and they must submit biweekly reports to the government and environmentalists that describe when, where and how long they conducted a survey; and when and why an air gun emitted more sound than allowed by the permit, according to the agreement.
     In addition, the American Petroleum Institute must conduct a four-year study of marine Vibroseis technology, an alternative to air guns that is theoretically safer for marine mammals. The institute must build three prototypes within 2 1/2 years of the agreement’s execution, field test at least one of them, give regular updates about the study’s results to the government and environmentalists, and submit a final report to a peer-reviewed scientific journal at the study’s conclusion.
     Should the study be canceled or fail to meet deadlines, the institute must give $2 million to a “near-coastal bottlenose dolphin-related study,” the settlement states.
     The settlement agreement puts a 30-month stay on the plaintiffs’ litigation against the government and oil industry, but allows them to resume legal action if the defendants violate any part of the agreement.
     Sierra Club associate attorney Ellen Medlin applauded the foresight in the deal
     “The settlement not only secures new protections for whales and dolphins harmed by deafening air guns, but also establishes a process for investigating alternatives to air gun surveys,” Medlin said in a statement. “As a result, the settlement not only delivers immediate benefits for Gulf marine mammals, but also takes the first step towards a long-term solution.”
     The plaintiffs were Natural Resources Defense Council; Center for Biological Diversity; The Gulf Restoration Network; and Sierra Club.
     They were represented by Joel Waltzer of Harvey, La.
     Defendants to the suit were Interior Department Secretary S.M.R. Jewell; the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement; and that agency’s director, Tommy Beaudreau.
     They were represented by Justice Department attorneys Ayako Sato and Kevin McArdle.

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