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High Energy Seismic Survey Review Process and Interim Operational Guidelines


In late 1998, the High Energy Seismic Survey (HESS) Team completed a two-year effort of developing a standardized set of application review procedures and mitigation measures for high energy seismic surveys proposed offshore central and southern California. The final report, titled "High Energy Seismic Survey Review Process and Interim Operational Guidelines for Marine Surveys Offshore Southern California," is available for review at the Energy Division, State Lands Commission, and Minerals Management Service (MMS) offices. The report describes a coordinated process for the review of high energy seismic survey permit applications for the geographic area from Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary south to the Mexican border in State and Federal waters (referred to as the "Study Area").

High energy seismic surveys are defined as acoustic data acquisition for the purposes of mineral resources exploration and/or development. They are considered to be the use of airgun arrays for the geophysical data acquisition commonly referred to as 2D and 3D seismic, but excludes seafloor investigative processes such as side scan sonar and shallow hazards surveys.

The HESS Team, convened by the MMS in September, 1996 and facilitated by Ms. Alana Knaster of The Mediation Institute, was comprised of various stakeholders, including representatives from federal, state, and local agencies, as well as industry and environmental groups. The HESS Team review process is designed to achieve several purposes:

a) provide a "roadmap" to applicants and the public regarding each agency's role and requirements;
b) improve communication and coordination among the participating agencies during each process phase; and
c) identify and provide opportunities for the public to give input to the agencies on the issues to be addressed in the permit review process.

In addition, the HESS Team hosted a panel of national experts in marine mammal physiology, marine acoustics and geophysical survey work to help compile a series of mitigation guidelines for seismic testing, in order to ensure the protection of marine mammals from project related impacts. Among the mitigation measures developed by the group are: the establishment of safety zones and zones of potential harassment; use and verification of transmission loss models; ramp-up procedures to enable marine mammals an opportunity to leave and deter others from entering the area prior to full use of the airgun array; shipboard monitoring by qualified observers; and aerial survey work.


In 1988, the State Lands Commission (SLC) considered an application from a consortium of companies for a high energy seismic survey permit in State waters. In response to the substantial controversy surrounding issues raised by commercial fishermen, recreational divers and the environmental community, the SLC denied the application and determined that an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) must be prepared before it could consider future survey applications. The SLC decision was litigated and, in 1990, the California Court of Appeals affirmed the SLC's decision.

In the early 1990s, increasing concern and substantial controversy surrounded the environmental effects of high energy seismic surveys in both State and Federal waters. In particular, these concerns included potential acoustic impacts of noise on the physiology and behavior of marine mammals, impacts on commercial fishing, recreational diving and fish eggs and larvae. Significant controversy regarding the effects of underwater noise on marine organisms was generated by a Scripps Institution of Oceanography proposal to conduct the Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate (ATOC) experiment offshore California. This project, as well as others conducted by the Department of Defense, increased the public awareness of noise related issues.

In 1995, Exxon, operator of the Santa Ynez Unit (SYU), submitted a proposal to the MMS to conduct a 30-day high energy seismic survey of the Santa Ynez Unit. The survey encompassed 16 leases and covered 117 square miles offshore Santa Barbara County. This was the first high energy seismic survey conducted offshore since 1988. The regulatory review of the project took eight months to complete because of concerns expressed regarding the scope of environmental review, Coastal Commission jurisdiction, adequacy of mitigation requirements, the timing of public participation, and the need for better agency cooperation. This substantially increased the project review time more than the two to four week project reviews in the 1980s.

In 1996, MMS saw the need to develop a process that meets the needs of all interested parties. In early 1996, MMS polled stakeholders for an expression of interest in forming a team to develop recommendations for improving the process that regulatory agencies follow in reviewing high energy seismic surveys. A broad cross-section of individuals representing government agencies, the offshore oil and gas industry, the geophysical industry, the commercial fishing industry, marine research, and environmental organizations met in June, 1996. From this gathering, the High Energy Seismic Survey (HESS) Team was formed. The Team procured the services of Ms. Alana Knaster of The Mediation Institute to facilitate all Team meetings. The first meeting was held on September 30, 1996. The goals set by the Team were to reach consensus on the application review process, including environmental review, and develop a set of potential mitigation measures for high energy seismic surveys proposed in the State of California and Federal waters within the Team's proposed study area.

Summary of the Review Process

The following description of the review process of high energy seismic surveys emphasizes the consideration of applications that could be received over the next few years. On March 5, 1998, the HESS Team recommended to the Regional Director of MMS and the Executive Officer of the CSLC that a Joint Program Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report (PEIS/EIR) be prepared. The decision to prepare the PEIS/EIR has been deferred for future consideration. In the interim, proposals to conduct seismic surveys in Federal waters will be reviewed pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) guidelines. Prior to completion of the PEIS/EIR an EIR will be required for any high energy seismic surveys in State waters. If and when the Joint PEIS/EIR is approved by the MMS and certified by the SLC, a Negative Declaration (ND) tiering on the PEIS/EIR may suffice to meet the requirements of CEQA to consider survey applications for work conducted in state waters. Additionally, high energy seismic surveys occurring in both state and federal waters may be considered for review under a joint Environmental Assessment/Negative Declaration (EA/ND).

For further information, please contact Drew Mayerson, (805)389-7750, at the Minerals Management Service.



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