US regulators have outlined a number of measures aimed at minimising the effect seismic oil and gas shoots will have on marine life in the Atlantic Ocean.
The long-awaited framework, published on Thursday in an environmental impact study by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), is an important step in opening up a potential new US oil and gas province off the Mid- and South Atlantic coast. Seismic data in the region is nearly four decades old, the bureau said.
The federal US government has refrained from awarding licenses for seismic surveys off the country's east coast due to fears over the impact on marine creatures such as whales that rely on sensitive sound detection in migration.
Among the safeguards to marine life, BOEM would require seismic shoots to be conducted outside the main migratory route for the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale and would not allow air-gun shoots to be carried out in the same area simultaneously.
The agency will also require passive acoustic monitoring to aid visual observers and improve detection of marine mammals prior to and during seismic air-gun surveys.
“We’re really going to require and demand a high level of environmental performance from any operator seeking to conduct surveys in these areas,” BOEM Director Tommy Beaudreau told reporters on Thursday, adding that seismic companies will have to "up their game" to mitigate environmental impacts.
BOEM stressed that the environmental impact study, which has been in draft form since 2012, does not authorise or deny any seismic activities "but rather it establishes a framework for additional mandatory environmental reviews for site-specific actions and identifies broadly-applicable measures" governing any future activities.
The American Petroleum Institute, a lobby group, was hopeful the impact study would get the ball rolling on exploration in the Atlantic Ocean.
“By permitting seismic surveys in the Atlantic and including Atlantic lease sales in the next five-year leasing plan, the Obama administration can build a long-term path to new jobs for American workers, new revenue for the government, and greater energy security for all of us,” API upstream director Erik Milito said in a statement.
BOEM has estimated that the the east coast region could contain up to 8.87 billion barrels of technically recoverable reserves, though the majority of it is likely gas.
The bureau coordinated with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Fish & Wildlife Service and other agencies and organisations to develop the mitigation strategy "focused on avoiding injury to marine animals and reducing the potential for behavioural disruption".
The final impact study is available for public comment until 7 April and can be accessed here.