Resource Development Council

RDC Comment Letter:

April 9, 2010

Mr. P. Michael Payne
Chief, Permits, Conservation and Education Division
Office of Protected Resources
National Marine Fisheries Service
1315 East-West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20190-3225

Re: Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement on the Effects of Oil and Gas Activities in the Arctic Ocean, RIN 0648-XU06

Dear Mr. Payne:

The Resource Development Council (RDC) appreciates the opportunity to comment on the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to analyze the impacts of issuing Incidental Take Authorizations (ITAs) pursuant to the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

RDC is a statewide business association comprised of individuals and companies from Alaska’s oil and gas, mining, forest products, tourism, and fisheries industries. RDC’s membership includes Alaska Native corporations, local governments, organized labor and industry support firms. Our purpose is to encourage a strong, diversified private sector in Alaska and expand the state’s economic base through the responsible development of our natural resources.

RDC endorses the comments offered by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association (AOGA) and the American Petroleum Institute (API) in support of the issuance of ITAs for offshore exploration activities in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off Alaska. In addition, RDC agrees with the comments AOGA submitted July 30, 2007 on the Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (DPEIS) that was initiated and later terminated after a four-year effort. Many of the comments in that letter are relevant to this new scoping process and should be taken into consideration.

As the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) prepares the EIS, RDC urges that it perform a balanced and objective review of science and peer-reviewed literature, including industry-funded research, on the effects of oil and gas operations in the marine environment and on marine mammals. The EIS should avoid speculating on potential effects and should base potential impacts on documented incidents or technical reports. The EIS should acknowledge the evidence in peer-reviewed literature, which indicates that seismic exploration operations have not affected the health or reproductive fitness of marine mammal populations. Studies to date have been consistent in their conclusions on this topic.

The government has played a leading role in scientific studies on the environmental effects of offshore oil and gas activities. The National Academy of Sciences has produced three reports focused on environmental science for offshore oil and gas, two of which had particular focus on Alaska waters. The Minerals Management Service has spent more than $600 million on scientific studies on offshore areas, with about half of the funding directed to Alaska. The industry has also played a leading role, allocating millions of dollars for major scientific programs that supplement the research of government agencies.

RDC members support monitoring and scientific data collection that contributes to the ongoing successful recovery of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas (BCB) bowhead whale stock. Our members also support voluntary negotiated agreements with North Slope whalers to ensure that conflicts between oil and gas activities and the subsistence hunt are avoided. However, our members do not support regulatory restrictions that would substantially burden or even preclude responsible development of Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) resources, especially when such restrictions are not based on sound science and are without any demonstrable benefit to any species. Unfortunately, most of the proposed alternatives contained in the DPEIS contained such restrictions. RDC would not support measures in the new EIS which are burdensome yet unnecessary, scientifically unsupported, and based on an implausible worst-case scenario.

As noted in AOGA’s July 2007 comments on the DPEIS, the effects of seismic exploration in the Arctic, particularly with respect to the BCB stock of bowhead whales, have been the subject of numerous detailed analyses by the Minerals Management Service (MMS) and the NMFS. Each successive analysis has reviewed available information regarding seismic impacts and the status of the BCB Seas population and concluded there have essentially been no impacts over the period of time involved.

The AOGA 2007 comments stated: “What has changed in these analyses over time are: (i) increasingly unrealistic assumptions about the extent of expected survey activity (referred to in the DPEIS as the ‘foreseeable level of activity’), (ii) increased significance accorded to speculative impacts for which there is no supporting data, (iii) decreased significance accorded to the highly credible scientific data demonstrating the continued health and growth of the BCB stock and the insignificant effects of seismic activity, (iv) decreased significance accorded to feasibility and practicability, and (v) increased stringency of proposed restrictions on seismic survey activity. Coupled with misperceptions of the underlying statutory standards, these trends have culminated in a worst-case scenario impacts analysis presented in the DPEIS, which stacks unreasonable assumptions one on top of another in efforts to support scientifically unwarranted and impracticable restrictions designed to mitigate highly improbable impacts. If MMS and NMFS proceed with regulatory actions premised upon the statutory misperceptions and speculative worst-case scenario effects analysis contained in the DPEIS, its decisions will likely be contrary to law.”

The new EIS should craft realistic operating scenarios for future oil and gas activity and should not focus on unrealistic worst-case scenarios.

With regard to the imposition of 120 dB and 160 dB exclusion zones as mitigation measures for the benefit of bowhead whales, there is a lack of scientific evidence to support the implementation of such zones. In fact, there is no evidence that oil and gas exploration activities have resulted in a reduction of any marine mammal stock. The 120 dB and 160 dB exclusion zones cannot be reconciled with decades of data regarding the sustained health of the stock.

RDC members have serious concern with safety issues surrounding the 120 dB and 160 dB safety zone requirements identified in some of the past DPEIS alternatives. Both zones cannot be safely and effectively monitored. Aerial monitoring of these zones are unsafe due to their enormous size and the extreme and unpredictable weather conditions in this remote area. These exclusion zones present significant and unwarranted safety risks and are impracticable. The EIS should consider important safety and other relevant factors in its analysis of 120 dB and 160 dB safety zones. Despite statutory obligations, previous analyses, including the DPEIS, contained little discussion and no actual analysis of feasibility issues. NMFS and MMS should consider only those measures that are implementable, which the agencies have defined to mean “feasible in the technical, environmental, economic and social senses.” (2006 PEIS at 13). Unfortunately, previous documents made no attempt to quantify costs, evaluate the availability of technologies, identify risks, or otherwise consider the feasibility of the 120/160 dB safety zone requirement or of time/area closures. This oversight should not occur in the new EIS.

Both NMFS and MMS have confirmed that the BCB Seas stock is adequately protected through the use of a 180 dB exclusion zone. With the use of the 190/180 dB exclusion zone and other routine mitigation and monitoring, our members are confident there will be no adverse impacts to the BCB Seas stock of bowhead whales.

With regard to cumulative impact analysis, while RDC understands such analysis is an important component of the NEPA process, we do not believe there is compelling data supporting a limit on the number of ITAs. Not only are marine mammals thoroughly protected under existing laws and mitigation measures, industry operations in the Alaska Arctic have had no negative impact on polar bears and other marine mammals. Overly restrictive measures and a limitation on ITAs would discourage industry investment, future exploration, and production of energy resources from the Arctic – with no added benefit to marine mammals. The agency should exercise its best judgment in granting ITAs. In addition, RDC recommends that the EIS provide for a categorical exclusion section that identifies activities not requiring ITAs.

RDC does not support including non-oil and gas activities in the Arctic into the cumulative impact analysis. The focus of the EIS is to study potential impacts of oil and gas activities. Other activities outside the industry do not fit in this EIS analysis. Likewise, the cumulative impact analysis should not take into account impacts occurring outside Alaska on marine mammals, given activities that may impact them abroad (for example, Russia) are managed under different laws and regulatory regimes, and may not be subject to the extensive mitigation measures we have in place in Alaska. Again, this is outside the scope of the EIS.

RDC is confident oil and gas production from the Chukchi and Beaufort can move forward in an environmentally-sensitive and responsible manner through a strong and proven regulatory regime, seasonal operating restrictions as needed, and reasonable mitigation measures to avoid conflicts with other resource users.

In addition to the issues raised up to this point in these comments, the EIS should consider and acknowledge the following important national interests:

  • First, demand for energy in the U.S. and abroad will continue to grow. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that by 2025, demand for oil will increase by 39% and demand for natural gas will rise by 34%. The EIA also estimates that oil and natural gas will account for nearly two-thirds of the energy consumed in 2025.
  • Second, if oil and gas resources are not developed and produced domestically, they will be imported from abroad, increasing our reliance on foreign sources. Benefits of developing domestic oil and gas resources should be considered. OCS production will help grow and sustain our economy, create jobs and generate local, state and federal revenue – all while protecting the environment. Moreover, new natural gas production from the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas would enhance the economic viability of the proposed natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the Lower 48.
  • Third, Alaska has vast oil and gas resources in the OCS that can and should play a major role in meeting future needs and offsetting production declines from mature basins. Current estimates indicate the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas contain 122 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas and 25 billion barrels of oil. These estimates may actually prove to be conservative as the Alaska OCS is largely under explored and estimates have not incorporated the use of new seismic and computer modeling technology.
  • Fourth, new offshore development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive. OCS development has an outstanding safety and environmental record spanning decades. Development has coexisted with other industries, including fishing, in the North Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and Cook Inlet. With regard to the Alaskan OCS, exploration is not new. Approximately 30 wells have been drilled in the Beaufort Sea and five in the Chukchi Sea. Since 2005, the federal government has collected over $3 billion for leases in these waters. These facts should be acknowledged in the EIS.

In conclusion, RDC members in the oil and gas industry have a track record of responsible development and protection of marine mammals. They are committed to maintaining this record while providing additional domestic energy, jobs and economic activity for America. As you know, it takes oil companies many years – 20 years in some cases – to develop leases once they are acquired. Long-term business decisions are made on the assumption that permits will be issued and responsible oil and gas development will be allowed to occur on those leases under reasonable mitigation measures that protect the environment. This includes timely and predictable issuance of ITAs for those companies investing in Alaska and producing needed oil and gas resources for America.

We urge NMFS and MMS to address in the EIS the concerns and recommendations identified in these comments, as well as the comments submitted by AOGA (April 2010 and July 2007) and API (April 2010). Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the preparation of the EIS.

Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc.