According to the June 30, 2014 issue of the Federal Register - "The Daily Journal of the United States Government" - the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has received an application from ExxonMobile Production Company "for an Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) to take marine mammals, by harassment, incidental to installing six conductor pipes via hydraulic hammer driving at the Harmony Platform, Santa Ynez Production Unit, located in the Santa Barbara Channel offshore of California."
"Many of these marine mammal are already threatened by dumping of toxic fracking fluids into SB Channel waters," said James Hines, Conservation Chair with the Los Padres Chapter of the Sierra Club. "I ask that each of you and your organizations email the NMFS (address below) during the public comment period which ends on July 30 2014 and ask the NMFS NOT to issue the IHA to Exxon/Mobil Inc."
All quotes come form the June 30, 2014 issue of the Federal Register. Linked above.
The project involves Harmony Platform is located in Federal Waters in the Santa Barbara Channel between the City of Santa Barbara and Point Conception.
The types of marine mammals that reside in the area are: "Mysticetes (baleen whales), odontocetes (toothed whales), pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), and fissipeds (sea otters). The marine mammal species that potentially occur within the Pacific Ocean in proximity to the proposed action area in the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of California (ranging from Point Conception and south, including the entire Southern California Bight) include 30 species of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) and 6 species of pinnipeds. The southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis) is listed as threatened under the ESA and is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is not considered further in this proposed IHA notice."
Some animals considered endangered may be affected - "Marine mammal species listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA; 16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), includes the North Pacific right (Eubalaena japonica), humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae), sei (Balaenoptera borealis), fin (Balaenoptera physalus), blue (Balaenoptera musculus), and sperm (Physeter macrocephalus) whale as well as the Guadalupe fur seal (Arctocephalus townsendi). Of those threatened and endangered species, the humpback, sei, fin, blue, and sperm whale are likely to be encountered in the proposed action area."
NMFS is receiving public comment now through July 30, regarding it's intention to issue the requested permit to ExxonMobile that will allow the company to "incidentally harass, by Level B harassment only, 30 species of marine mammals during the specified activity."
ExxonMobile has applied for "level B harrassment" permission, listed as ii below.
"the Marine Mammal Protection Act defines “harassment” as: Any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which (i) has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild [Level A harassment]; or (ii) has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering [Level B harassment].
During the project there will be Protected Species Observers (PSO) stationed at "observation stations" on the platform. They would watch for marine mammals "before and during the proposed conductor pipe installation activities." They would monitor the "level B" buffer zone, and also the "level A" exclusion zone.
What is a TAKE? It could be an animal being killed, but it could just be an influence on movement, eating, breeding and so on. There are the two levels - A or B - of "harassment". Level B is considered a lesser impact. In this project the sound or acoustic impacts has been examined.
"Acoustic stimuli generated by the conductor pipe installation activities, which introduce sound into the marine environment and in-air, may have the potential to cause Level B harassment of marine mammals in the proposed action area," states the report. Some of the impacts on marine mammals can include: "tolerance, masking of natural sounds, behavioral disturbance, temporary or permanent hearing impairment, or non-auditory physical or physiological effects (Richardson et al., 1995; Gordon et al., 2004; Nowacek et al., 2007; Southall et al., 2007)." NMFS does consider permanent hearing impairment to be an "injury" but does not consider temporary threshold shift an injury. "Although the possibility cannot be entirely excluded, it is unlikely that the proposed project would result in any cases of temporary or permanent hearing impairment, or any significant non-auditory physical or physiological effects. Based on the available data and studies described here, some behavioral disturbance is expected."
This request was received in March of this year, According to the statement released in the Federal Register, the project as planned by ExxonMobile will take place from mid-August to mid-November 2014, "but the proposed action could occur anytime within a 12-month period from the effective date of the proposed IHA. Acoustic stimuli (i.e., increased underwater and airborne sound) generated during the conductor pipe installation activities are likely to result in the take of marine mammals. Take, by Level B harassment only, of 30 species is anticipated to result from the proposed activities."
Federal law allows this sort of "taking" by instructing the Secretary of Commerce to
"to allow, upon request, the incidental, but not intentional, taking of small numbers of marine mammals, by United States 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 a proposed authorization is provided to the public for review."
In order to approve such a request it must be shown that the "taking" - "will have a negligible impact on the species or stock(s), and will not have an unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of the species or stock(s) for subsistence uses (where relevant), and if the permissible methods of taking requirements pertaining to the mitigation, monitoring and reporting of such takings are set forth. NMFS has defined “negligible impact” in 50 CFR 216.103 as “. . . an impact resulting from the specified activity that cannot be reasonably expected to, and is not reasonably likely to, adversely affect the species or stock through effects on annual rates of recruitment or survival.”
ExxonMobile is proposing, and has approval from The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management(BOEM) and from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) (for information on these two agencies click here ) to install "six conductor pipes by hydraulic hammering at Harmony Platform."
The work takes place at a water depth of 336 meters. Harmony was intalled in 1989, and began production in 1993. It has a crew capacity of 132 people. "A conductor pipe is installed prior to the commencement of drilling operations for oil and gas wells. It provides protection, stability/structural integrity and a conduit for drill cutting and drilling fluid to the platform.It also prevents unsolicited sediment from caving into the well bore, and provides structural support for the well loads." The platform is currently active. According to information in the Federal Register "installation with a hydraulic hammer" is the only viable method of installing the additional conductors. "Pile-driving the conductors are the only proven installation method that enables management of potential interferences with the existing platform infrastructure that would also reach target depth." Other methods are said to increase the risk "to platform structural integrity, offset well collision and shallow-hole broaching." Each conductor pipe is approximately 1,658 feet. ExxonMobile proposed 8 new conductor pipes.
According to WikiPedia Harmony PLatform is the world's seventh deepest platform, based on water depth of 366 meters. The platform contains 60 well slots.
The NMFS has also received an application for marine mammal taking from Buccaneer Alaska Corp. operating in the Cook inlet, about 180 miles from the Gulf of Alaska. Click here for more info.
Comments on the application should be addressed to Jolie Harrison, Supervisor, Incidental Take Program, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910. The mailbox address for providing email comments is ITP.Goldstein@noaa.gov. Comments sent via email, including all attachments, must not exceed a 25-megabyte file size.