061517 Environment: Drilling foes try to simplify comment process
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Areas of the Outer Continental Shelf included in the permit proposal.
Environment: Drilling foes try to simplify comment process

By Nikki Best

Despite an outcry from locals, the only way seismic testing in the Atlantic is moving at the federal level is forward.

Five permits are filed for approval through the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. These are the same permits originally filed under the Obama administration between 2014-2016, which were halted when an embargo was placed on drilling and seismic testing in the Atlantic. An executive order signed by President Donald Trump in May reopened the possibility of seismic exploration of the outer continental shelf, the first step toward offshore drilling.

A public comment period is open regarding the permits’ Incidental Hazard Authorizations. The local environmental group Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic (SODA) is working to help format comments for any citizen to submit.

“This comment period is on the IHAs, which tend to be technical,” said Peg Howell, a member of SODA leadership. “What’s tricky about this comment period is to make the complex simple enough for citizens to be able to comment.”

It’s a process. IHAs are part of the overall permit process from BOEM and fall to the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If approved, fisheries service then issues the one year permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. “NMFS has not done an analysis of the cumulative impact of all five seismic permits, which is also required,” Howell said. “That missing piece is what we are asking folks to comment on.”

The marine mammal act prohibits the “take” of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas. There are exceptions that allow activities such as scientific research, enhancing the survival or recovery of a species or stock, educational photography, incidental take during commercial fishing operations and “uncidental take” during non-fishery commercial activities. The last one is what the Incidental Hazard Authorization would allow.

A denial will stop a seismic testing permit and in turn any offshore drilling that could follow that based on that exploration. This is why the comments must be technical.

“Comments indicating general support for or opposition to hydrocarbon exploration or any comments relating to hydrocarbon development (e.g., leasing, drilling) are not relevant to this request for comments and will not be considered,” says the notice in the Federal Register. Comments must be “supported by data or literature citations as appropriate.”

It has to be organized. That’s why SODA is working to help interested people create submissions. “We may be wrong in taking this approach, but desperate times require desperate action,” Howell said. “We can’t do any harm by submitting comments.”

One member of the SODA team is Richard Wildermann, resident of Seabrook Island and a 26 year veteran of the Department of the Interior’s Offshore Oil and Gas Program and former head of the environmental division of the Minerals Management Service, the predecessor to BOEM. He understands the nitty-gritty details of the process and argues the analysis posted in the Federal Register, which is what public comments is based on, is not thorough enough. “It fails to consider the cumulative impacts of multiple seismic survey operations occurring in the same geographic area over the same period of time,” he said in his public comment.

Before the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, Wildermann was neutral in his opinion of offshore drilling and exploration. The industry assured that there were adequate safeguards in place because they could not afford a major spill. A well represents millions of dollars in investment, so the industry claimed it couldn’t afford a major accident, he said.

“But last time I looked, BP was doing fine,” Wildermann said. “Oil industry pockets aren’t just deep, they are bottomless. Thank the Koch brothers.”

Wildermann repeatedly points out where fisheries service, in its own publication, has already concluded that the seismic testing would be more harmful than an IHA would excuse: “We preliminarily find that the total marine mammal take from (company name) proposed survey activities will have a negligible impact on all affected marine mammal species or stocks.”

“If there were a hundred applicants, or a thousand applicants, the conclusion for each one, considered in isolation, would still be the same, namely, negligible impact,” Wildermann said.

If the IHA permits are granted, then the testing permits move onto BOEM for approval. A 30 day public comment period will be opened if that happens. If the permits are approved for seismic testing, that’s when attorneys could become involved.

“BOEM has the discretion to issue or not to issue,” said Amelia Thompson, an attorney with the S.C. Environmental Law Project. “After they issue, if they do issue permits, then that decision can be appealed and it would go to the Interior Board of Land Appeals.”

The board is a division of the Department of the Interior and it handles federal agency appeals. “Much like on the state level if DHEC staff make a decision, then you can appeal that decision to the DHEC board,” Thompson said.

Seismic testing can be conducted between 3 to 200 nautical miles off the South Carolina coast, although the state has requested the testing off the coast begin at no less than 40 miles in a 2015 Department of Health and Environmental Control agreement. All the state’s coastal municipalities have officially voiced opposition to offshore drilling and/or seismic testing. NOAA’s public comment period is open through July 6. The permits are on track to move forward by fall.

Comments are important. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stated in May that he will only offer offshore areas if the communities agree. Opinions of affected local communities are an important factor of whether to include specific areas in the 2017-2022 OCS oil and gas program, Wildermann said. “But I’m not as confident that this administration will respect that commitment,” he said.

“There’s no guarantee the process will unfold as usual,” Howell said. “That’s why SODA favors submitting comments whenever and wherever we can.”

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