June 27, 2013
Ms. Candace Nachman
Office of Protected Resources
National Marine Fisheries Service
1315 East-West Highway, Room 13115
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Re: SDEIS on Effects of Oil and Gas Activities in the Arctic Ocean
Dear Ms. Nachman:
The Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc., (RDC) is writing to express its concerns on the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) for Oil and Gas Activities in the Arctic Ocean.
RDC is a statewide organization made up of all resource sectors, business associations, labor unions, Native corporations, tourism providers, local governments and individuals. RDC’s 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 and its members have serious concerns with the substantial errors, omissions, and technical flaws that persist in the SDEIS. In addition, the SDEIS overlooks and does not adequately address the previous comments of RDC and other stakeholders. As a result, serious fundamental problems with the earlier DEIS remain.
The SDEIS remains disconnected from any specific proposed action, such as the issuance of Incidental Take Authorizations (ITAs) under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The SDEIS instead evaluates speculative future actions, none of which are currently proposed federal actions. The SDEIS has also expanded from a five-year time frame (2012-2017) to cover all oil and gas exploration activities in the Alaska Arctic in perpetuity. This greatly magnifies the speculative nature of the SDEIS.
SDEIS fails to adequately describe socio-economic benefits
Alaska’s Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) is an important future source of U.S. energy supply. The potential reserves offshore Alaska could reach as high as 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – more than all the current total proven U.S. oil reserves. Development would significantly boost the economy, create 54,000 new jobs and $145 billion in payroll across the U.S., and reduce America’s reliance on foreign energy. It would also generate $193 billion in revenues to federal, state, and local governments. Moreover, development of vast offshore oil deposits in Alaska’s Arctic is vital in stemming the throughput decline in the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline System (TAPS), which for 36 years has stood as a critical component of America’s energy infrastructure. TAPS is now operating at less than one-third its original capacity and will face serious operational challenges without additional supply.
Unfortunately, the SDEIS fails to adequately describe potential oil and gas reserves in the Alaska Arctic and the corresponding economic benefits to Alaska and the nation. For each of the alternatives, the SDEIS offers a shallow, cursory, and inadequate assessment of the economic benefits, and inconceivably concludes they are “minor.”
The SDEIS should have included a rigorous socio-economic analysis that incorporated results of studies completed in 2009 and 2011 by Northern Economics and the Institute for Social and Economic Research, as well as the State of Alaska. Should the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proceed with this process, it must undertake a rigorous socio-economic analysis and include the results of the studies noted above.
The definition of “program” is erroneous and problematic
The definition of “program” in the SDEIS is erroneous and problematic. There are 670 active federal leases in the Alaska OCS held by eleven companies. Under the definition of program in the SDEIS, these operators may be unnecessarily restricted to one rig in each the Chukchi and Beaufort seas and may be prevented from simultaneously drilling on more than one lease or prospect at a time. This would severely limit Arctic exploration activities and unlawfully restrict operators in the exploration and development of their leases pursuant to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA). In addition, the definition of program could be interpreted to require companies to submit separate exploration plans for each source vessel, which would make the OCSLA process unnecessarily complicated and troublesome, potentially exposing the federal government to litigation from leaseholders seeking substantial damages for breach of contract.
Impact analyses has serious flaws
With regard to the impact analyses for the issuance of MMPA ITAs, the SDEIS has serious flaws. For example, other than the no action alternative, all of the alternatives analyzed indicate a “minor” impact on marine mammals, which is defined by NMFS as something greater than “negligible.” However, this is inconsistent with the longstanding factual record that shows oil and gas activities in the Arctic have had no more than a negligible impact on marine mammals. By purporting to have at least a “minor” impact on marine mammals, the SDEIS is in conflict with the “negligible impact” standard for ITAs. Moreover, neither NMFS nor the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) have ever prepared an EIS for ITAs in the Arctic. Likewise, geological and geophysical activities do not require an EIS, given they are limited by scope, duration, and impact. These activities do not have the potential to “significantly” affect the environment or subsistence resources, and there has not been a need for an EIS to address these activities. Should the agencies proceed to issue a final EIS, they must make clear in the document that the contemplated activities will not have a “significant impact” on the environment.
Under existing mitigation measures, oil and gas activities in the Arctic have had no known adverse impact to marine mammals. Despite being exposed to the full range of activity in the Arctic since the 1960s, the Western Arctic bowhead stock has remained healthy and resilient. Only very minor changes in migration paths and vocalization rates have occurred. The stock has experienced robust growth for many decades – all while being exposed to oil and gas activities. Yet despite a sustained record of well-supported “negligible impact” determinations by NMFS for decades, the SDEIS finds that “moderate” or “moderate to major” impacts would occur from oil and gas activities under all of the action alternatives. Such a conclusion is arbitrary and directly contradicts decades of data and scientific review.
Similarly, the SDEIS erroneously fails to conclude that the impacts of oil and gas exploration activities have “negligible” impacts on ice seals, polar bears and Pacific walrus. Again, the conclusions drawn in the SDEIS are contrary to the record. In the case of polar bears and Pacific walrus, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has consistently concluded, in the context of issuing MMPA ITA regulations, that Arctic oil and gas activities have had no more than a “negligible” impact. These conclusions have been challenged numerous times in court and upheld in all cases.
Proposed mitigation measures are problematic and unwarranted
The proposed mitigation measures outlined in the DEIS and the updated supplemental are so problematic they could severely compromise the feasibility of developing oil and gas resources in the Alaska OCS. The industry purchased leases in the Arctic in good faith, but the proposed restrictions and mitigation measures could make future development uneconomic and therefore improbable. In our view, this would essentially amount to a de facto taking of the leases. The mitigation measures and restrictions would provide little if any benefit beyond the current lease stipulations and other measures already in place to protect the environment, marine mammals, and subsistence activities.
Given the reasons expressed in RDC’s February 24, 2012 comments on the 2011 DEIS and those expressed in this letter, there is no need or basis for including additional mitigation measures in the SDEIS. Further, we share the specific concerns expressed by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association (AOGA) on pages 11-13 of its June 27, 2013 comments on the SDEIS. Accordingly, we recommend NMFS remove the additional mitigation measures from the SDEIS. Existing mitigation measures are proven to be effective in protecting subsistence resources and activities and any conclusion to the contrary is not supported by the best available science and commercial data.
Acoustic criteria approach is flawed
As noted in the June 27, 2013 comments of AOGA, the central focus of the SDEIS should be an evaluation of the impacts associated with the authorization of incidental take by harassment of marine mammals by oil and gas exploration activities. This focus requires an analysis of the effects of sound on marine mammals. However, the SDEIS evaluates these effects based on acoustic criteria that are going to be revised by NMFS sometime later this year. NMFS suggests that because the revised acoustic criteria will be subject to a separate public review and comment process, they may be incorporated into a final EIS without additional NEPA public review and comment. However, in order to properly inform this NEPA process, stakeholders must have an opportunity to review and comment on NMFS’s application and incorporation of the new acoustic criteria in the SDEIS itself. NMFS’ current and intended approach represents yet another fundamental flaw in the SDEIS.
State of Alaska consultation
NEPA regulations require NMFS to “invite the participation of affected Federal, State, and local agencies” to participate in the EIS process. It is RDC’s understanding that the State of Alaska was not invited to participate in the SDEIS process nor consulted on any substantive issues. Given the area covered by the SDEIS includes state waters, this is troubling. The State of Alaska must be consulted in a meaningful manner, should NMFS proceed with this process.
In our view, there is no demonstrated need for an EIS for incidental take relating to oil and gas activities in the Arctic. For many years, ITAs have been authorized by NMFS and USFWS on a project-by-project basis with incidental harassment authorizations or through the issuance of incidental take regulations. RDC continues to support the issuance of ITAs under the MMPA, given its effectiveness in protecting marine mammals without unnecessarily hampering industry. The MMPA regulatory process is an effective tool in balancing and justifying oil and gas activities with the conservation of marine mammals. After decades of oil and gas exploration activities in the Arctic, there is no scientific or commercial data demonstrating that any of the activities evaluated in the SDEIS have had a significant impact on the environment.
As it currently stands, the SDEIS is unworkable as serious fundamental problems remain. The proposed measures are unwarranted and could preclude future development, undermining the Obama administration’s priority of developing oil and gas deposits of the Arctic, which the President has found to be in the nation’s best interest.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the SDEIS.
Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc.