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The Case For Regulation Of Seismic Surveys

posted 26 Nov 2013, 10:03 by Gerry Kangalee



The following update is provided in keeping with FFOS’ on-going commitment to keep the public informed of Petrotrin’s pending application to the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) for a Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) to carry out oil/gas exploratory Seismic Surveys in Trinidad and Tobago waters without requiring an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), as provided for in the Environmental Act (2000).

According to  the EMA, a CEC is issued prior to the start of the proposed activity (in this case a Seismic Survey) if the EMA considers the activity to be environmentally acceptable providing it is carried out according to the conditions laid out in the Certificate.

“The EIA is an invaluable tool in planning and environmental management which may be used in the CEC process depending on the proposed activity” (Page 3, EMA’s Guide to the Application for a CEC). 

The EIA is the process for identifying the likely effects on the environment and society from carrying out the Seismic Survey and for conveying this information to members of the public and those responsible for carrying out the proposed activity. The use of the EIA facilitates public participation and seeks to address and minimize potential adverse impacts, identifies environmental sensitivities, risks, as well as contributes to formulation of environmental management plans.

Some fifty-six (56) Seismic Surveys have been issued CECs by the EMA and carried since 2000 without an EIA. So far this year, the EMA has already issued three (3) CECs for Seismic Surveys and three more applications are pending including Petrotrin’s (EMA Public Register, October, 2013). The EMA intends to continue to issue environmental clearance without EIAs. 

By failing to require EIA’s the EMA has prevented the applicant from having to collect essential baseline environmental data before starting the Seismic Surveys during the Survey and after it is completed. Had the EMA required EIAs for Seismic Surveys, Petrotrin might have been able to claim adherence to “the highest standard of risk management”.

According to the EMA’s Practitioner’s Guide for “Deciding Whether a Project Must have an EIA”, they must use “professional judgement” and it is “the responsibility of the applicant” to show that “baseline conditions have not changed significantly”, since any previous EIA of a similar activity in the same area (Managing Director, EMA, October 15th, 2006, Practitioner’s Guide 002/2006).

In the case of Seismic Surveys, there are no previous EIAs hence no baseline – an even stronger case for requiring an EIA.

The EMA claims that the specific conditions of the CECs they issue make provisions for minimizing the impacts posed to sea turtles and marine mammals. The EMA also claims to be in the process of creating new Guidelines for Seismic Surveys. Their objective is to use existing knowledge of the nation’s fisheries to better inform the CEC process.

Since they failed to require EIAs in the past, there is no documented evidence of where, how much and what types of fish are being caught, and what the impacts of previous specific Seismic Surveys have been on national fisheries and particularly commercial fisheries, since only the landing sites and gross quantities caught are intermittently documented by the Fisheries Division (according to fishermen).

 As a result, the EMA is not in a position now, nor will they be after the Guidelines are written, to “ensure that offshore activities are conducted in a regulated manner”. Hence they would have failed to “uphold principles of sustainable development”.

Further, by failing to require EIAs, the EMA has also deprived key stakeholders, in this case the fisher folk, of participating in the statutory consultations which are enshrined in the EIA process.

Yet, bpTT has disingenuously described the EMA’s CEC process as “robust” and “rigorous”.

Everyone is now fully aware of the grave concerns of fishermen, forced, precisely because of a lack of consultations, to have to come into the full public gaze and demonstrate peacefully at the POS waterfront. They are reporting up to 70% drop in catch; lasting months after the Seismic Surveys are completed. 

The Minister responsible for fisheries recently gained permission from Cabinet to set up a “high level, inter-disciplinary” Committee (including The Energy Chamber of Commerce) to “address the negative impact of seismic surveys on the fishing industry” (Guardian Newspaper, 9th November, 2013).

Unfortunately, the proposed Committee is dominated by State and Corporate interests (10 persons) with only 2 persons selected to represent the interests of primary stakeholders – the fishermen, who have vast knowledge and experience of the sea.

Despite claims of having developed A ‘Draft National Compensation Guidelines to Fishers from Seismic Operations’, the State is not in a position to calculate compensation accurately because there is simply no relevant data.

The limited data that we have seen reports major reductions in fish catch, water quality and biodiversity as a result of several activities including land based pollution, over fishing and unsustainable commercial fishing.

Had the EMA required EIAs, impacts arising from these other activities could have been better quantified and the specific impacts of Seismic Surveys better distinguished. Additionally, the cumulative impacts of all our activities which affect the well-being of our Sea and commercial fisheries would have been better understood.

Petrotrin disingenuously claims that in 2004, the “highest catch at Claxton Bay occurred during a Seismic Survey” carried out in the North Marine Area of the Soldado Fields. They are of course referring to the one-time catch of fish that managed to flee north from the Seismic activity they were conducting.  

Petrotrin states that the sound from their Survey “will not exceed 250 decibels” and refers the public to a 1996 Study (Dalen et al) which reports Seismic Surveys have “little or no impact” on fish stock.

 However this contradicts a more recent ‘Report for the Norwegian Oil Association’ which states “many experiments show physical damage to fish (eggs, larvae and fry, as well as larger fishes) will occur at a sound pressure level of around 230 dB”. To understand this, the same Report says “a threshold for human pain underwater is 202 decibels and direct damage is 222 decibels” (Ingebret Gausland, 2003).

Petrotrin also refers to a 2007 Study by ‘Woodside’ (an Australian oil/gas giant) on Scott Reef in Australia, reporting “no significant impact on long-term fish behaviour”.

However, the Commonwealth Fisheries Association, with the support of industry around Australia, has lodged a nomination with the Department of Sustainability, the Environment, Water, Population and Communities, for marine seismic survey activities as a “key threatening process” under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, saying “there is growing evidence that seismic surveys cause damage to marine life, displacement from habitats (of fish) and disruption to breeding.”

Nine species are listed that could become vulnerable or “more highly endangered” including Black Jewfish, Scampi, Blue Warehou, Gemfish, Orange Roughy, Arrow Squid, Bluefin tuna and the Loggerhead Turtle” (Underwater noise, marine Noise Pollution, Australia, April, 2013).

Petrotrin claims in the Sunday Express (17/11/13) that Seismic Surveys “cannot be compared to bombing”, while bpTT calls it “pressured air pulses”. However, the CEC application by Petrotrin to the EMA indicates they intend to use a 1500 psi (pounds per square inch) “airgun array” triggered off every 50 meters to generate a “seismic explosion” or shot (page 4, Project Description). We calculate that over 30,000 of these “explosions” will be made during their proposed Seismic Survey.

Local fishermen, who experience the impacts directly, call it “Seismic Bombing”.

FFOS shares bpTT’s belief that there is “need to educate the public on the seismic technology being used and measures already in place to minimise environmental impacts” and accepts Petrotrin’s “assurance” that it will “observe all applicable laws imposed by the EMA”. The ball is in the EMA’s court. 

FFOS shall stand firm on the side of fishermen, fish and the integrity of both our oil/gas and fisheries sectors. We are prepared to sit on a fairly constituted Cabinet appointed Committee if there is a moratorium on further Seismic Surveys without EIAs while the Committee deliberates. We are however, prepared to seek natural justice in the High Court if further caution is thrown to the wind.