Despite the US government having just taken leasing off the table for the Atlantic and most to the Eastern Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, at least through 2017, what seemed like a small ray of sunshine was announced right before the holidays. Following Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s Dec. 1, 2010, updated energy strategy, which includes environmental assessment of geological and geophysical (G&G) studies in the mid- and south Atlantic planning areas, it was announced Dec. 17, 2010, that CSA International Inc. has been awarded a task order to develop the first G&G Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for this region. “The PEIS will evaluate potential environmental effects of multiple G&G activities, such as seismic surveys, that will be conducted to inform future decisions regarding oil, natural gas, and renewable energy development on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) in the mid- and south Atlantic planning areas," a press release from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) reads. “Seismic data is used by industry and BOEMRE to evaluate the potential for the safe development of offshore oil, natural gas, and non-energy mineral resources like sand and gravel. The data is also used for decision-making regarding the placement of offshore renewable energy infrastructure such as siting of wind turbines and to identify and protect benthic and archaeological resources and ensure a fair market value return for US taxpayers for energy resources developed on the OCS.”

The analysis will also support BOEMRE environmental compliance efforts with other applicable laws such as the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, National Historic Preservation Act, and the Coastal Zone Management Act.

The draft PEIS is expected to be made available for public comment in late 2011, and the final PEIS is expected to be completed in late 2012.

The question seems to be, why now? Salazar’s Dec. 1 announcement made it abundantly clear that no leases would be awarded in US Atlantic waters through 2017. If the PEIS identified reasonable environmental alternatives for Atlantic G&G activity at the end of 2012, it’s unlikely that seismic companies will rush forth to shoot non-exclusive data over an area that will lie fallow for at least another five years. Is this just an attempt to look like the government is doing something, anything, to placate its critics?

I asked Chip Gill, President of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC), for his take on the announcement. He brought up three questions:

1. Why CSA? “They were the ones that prepared the 2004 Gulf of Mexico G&G Environmental Assessment, and it was very professional and thorough,” Gill said. “But it’s now the subject of litigation.” Apparently the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups are questioning the validity of the conclusions in that study.

2. Why limit the PEIS to only two of the three Atlantic planning areas? “Now that leasing is off the table through 2017, why not go ahead and cover the whole thing?” Gill asked. “Does the US government intend to restrict the siting of wind farms north of New Jersey? If you look at the megalopolis along the Eastern Seaboard, it certainly doesn’t stop at New Jersey.”

3. Who’s going to acquire Atlantic seismic surveys before 2018? “Director Bromwich says this work will enable BOEMRE to identify the resources that meet our nation’s energy needs. When we had the possibility of lease sales, the non-exclusive data companies in support of their E&P company underwriters were developing data acquisition projects on the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf,” Gill said. “Now that leasing is off the table through 2017. From a practical standpoint I can’t see oil companies interested in underwriting a non-exclusive survey, and I can’t see geophysical contractors undertaking surveys on their own.” That means that any G&G studies conducted in the next six years would have to be paid for by the US government, a scenario that is both much more expensive than an industry-underwritten survey and quite unlikely.

Gill added that after Lease Sale 181, which would have offered up portions of the Eastern Gulf of Mexico for lease for the first time in decades, was canceled in 2001, contractors had to write off tens of millions of dollars of investment in non-exclusive surveys they’d already acquired but could no longer sell.

“Non exclusive data companies have recently ventured back into the Eastern Gulf of Mexico with several new data acquisition programs,” he said. “And once again the government has pulled the rug out from under them. After Secretary Salazar’s announcement, one would at least expect sales of that data to be delayed.”

But the IAGC isn’t the only organization opposed to the latest developments. Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute (API), told a luncheon gathering Jan. 4 that his organization had hoped that the Obama administration would allow drilling in the Atlantic and the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. Salazar’s comments clearly reflect that this will not be the case. So the API is now aiming its considerable lobbying clout at Congress, asking them to put “specific language” in the Interior Departments spending bill that requires lease sales to be held in those planning areas.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, spoke at that same luncheon. “We’ve got problems ahead of us that we’ve got to be prepared for,” Upton is quoted as saying in the Wall Street Journal.

Apparently not everyone came away from lunch with that special glow of fellowship, the article continues. T. Boone Pickens, never known for his subtlety, accused the API of representing foreign interests in a statement, while taxpayer advocates claim the industry is taking advantage of the struggling economy to “promote its own interests.”

If a change truly can be made to the recent no-lease decision, then the Atlantic G&G PEIS is a great step in the right direction. If not, it comes across as a feeble attempt to imitate forward progress.