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NOAA seeks comment on draft environmental impact statement on Arctic oil and gas exploration; incidental “take” authorizations

NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is seeking public comment on a newly released draft environmental impact statement describing how offshore oil and gas activities in the US Beaufort and Chukchi seas could affect marine mammals and the Alaska Native communities that depend on them for subsistence. The document also examines measures to lessen potential effects.

The EIS presents and assesses a range of geological and geophysical (G&G), ancillary, and exploratory drilling activities expected to occur, as well as a reasonable range of mitigation measures, in order to accurately assess the potential consequences of issuing “incidental take authorizations” (ITAs) under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and permits under the OCS Lands Act. The EIS will also contribute to decisions made by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on issuing permits for seismic surveys.

The term “take” as defined by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), means to “harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal.” Incidental, but not intentional taking is defined in 50 CFR 18.27 (Regulations governing small takes of marine mammals incidental to specified activities) as “takings which are infrequent, unavoidable, or accidental. It does not mean that the taking must be unexpected.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act directs the Secretary of Commerce to allow, upon request, the incidental, but not intentional taking of small numbers of marine mammals by US citizens who engage in a specified activity (other than commercial fishing) within a specified geographical region, if certain findings are made and either regulations are issued or, if the taking is limited to harassment, a notice of proposed authorization is provided to the public for review.

Under the MMPA, authorization for incidental takings shall be granted if:

  • National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) finds that the taking will have a negligible impact on the species or stock(s);
  • NMFS finds that the taking will not have an unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of the species or stock(s) for subsistence uses (where relevant); and
  • the permissible methods of taking and requirements pertaining to the mitigation, monitoring, and reporting of such takings are set forth.

The oil and gas exploration activities addressed and evaluated in the EIS are grouped into the following three categories:

  • Deep penetration geophysical surveys;
  • Shallow hazards surveys; and
  • Exploratory drilling.

The EIS also addresses:

  • Cumulative effects over a longer time frame;
  • A range of more reasonable alternatives consistent with the agencies’ statutory mandates;
  • A range of practicable mitigation and monitoring measures for marine mammals and their availability for subsistence uses; and
  • Anticipated levels of G&G activities in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, Alaska.

A total of nine alternatives were initially considered for this EIS, with the No Action Alternative and four action alternatives carried forward for analysis. The alternatives dismissed and not considered for analysis focused on: permanent closures of areas; caps on levels of activity and/or noise; elimination of duplicative surveys; and zero discharge. Aspects of the dismissed alternatives have been incorporated into the four remaining action alternatives and/or mitigation measures to be considered for analysis.

As part of its analysis in the EIS, NOAA examines various measures to minimize any potential harmful effects from sound, discharge of pollutants and presence of vessels that can be part of these operations.

The draft EIS lays out a number of mitigation measures, such as closing areas to exploration during whale migration and feeding and during traditional whale and seal hunts. If adopted, these measures could reduce the effects on marine mammals and ensure they remain available to the communities that depend on them for their diets and cultural traditions.

NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will travel to eight North Slope communities to hold public hearings in late January and February on the draft environmental impact statement. The times and building locations of the public hearings in Barrow, Kaktovik, Kivalina, Kotzebue, Nuiqsut, Point Hope, Point Lay and Wainwright will be announced early in 2012 in the Federal Register and through a public notice.

After receiving public comments during the 45-day comment period and from the public hearings, NOAA will finalize the environmental impact statement in 2012. It will then be used to guide decisions by BOEM about permitting of oil and gas exploration and by NOAA about incidental take authorizations that allow unintentional take of small numbers of marine mammals.



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