Colloquy: Marine noise

August 1, 2014

Underwater noise is recognized as an adverse environmental stress and must be addressed in environmental impact assessments (EIAs). Companies have stepped forward with 3D acoustic modeling and measurement systems as countries develop regulatory guidelines for all offshore activities that generate noise.


Since 1998, the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has partnered with academia and others, investing more than US$50million on marine noise-related research and protected species.

In 2010, the US Congress directed the BOEM to prepare a programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) of the potential environmental impacts of G&G activities off the Atlantic coast.

In March 2012, the BOEM published a draft PEIS, and during the 90-day comment period, it received more than 55,000 comments. It issued its final PEIS in February 2014, with several notable measures: to close areas during whale migration, to geographically separate simultaneous seismic airgun array surveys, and use passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) to supplement visual observations of marine mammals prior to and during surveys.

World Bank EHS Guidelines

As part of its risk management strategy, the International Finance Corp. of the World Bank Group has built a Sustainability Framework that it promotes as the gold standard. The IFC has developed technical reference documents with general and industry-specific examples of “Good International Industry Practice,” including Environmental, Health, and Safety (EHS) Guidelines on Offshore Oil and Gas Development. The current EHS Guidelines were developed as part of a two and a half year review process that ended in 2007.

The first public consultation period for comments about revising these guidelines was open 19 February - 22 March 2013. The second (and final) public consultation to revise the guideline ended on 28 May 2014, but the World Bank will not issu results until sometime in 2015.


News broke in mid-July that the five BRICS nations: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, representing major emerging national economies, agreed on the structure and planned to finance a $50 billion development bank as an alternative (and rival) to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. The bank will be based in Shanghai and its first presidency will be held by India.

Wiliam Gumede, writing for The Guardian, points out “there is no guarantee that a BRICS bank would not attach conditions as onerous as those of the World Bank or other development banks;” and goes on to say “It must pursue lending that is ecologically sustainable, and must promote inclusive economic growth and development.”

Given that competition often fosters greater efficiencies, will the new BRICS bank be able to develop and revise environmental guidelines for investments in offshore projects any faster than the World Bank? OE


The World Bank 2014 draft EHS guidelines say the following about marine noise:

Sec. 74. Offshore oil and gas development activities generating noise include seismic operations, drilling and production activities, offshore and nearshore structural installation (especially pile driving) and construction activities, and marine traffic. Noise from offshore activities (especially from seismic operations) can temporarily affect fish and marine mammals. [see Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) Guidelines 2010, International Assoc. of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC) 2011, Joint OGP/IAGC Position Paper 2011, and further references in Section 3.0]

Sec. 75. Environmental parameters that determine sound propagation in the sea are site-specific, and different species of marine life have different hearing sensitivities as a function of frequency. An impact assessment should be conducted to (i) identify where and/or when anthropogenic sound has the potential to create significant impacts and (ii) determine what mitigation measures, if any, are appropriate. Recommended measures to reduce the risk of sound impact to marine species include:
• Identify sensitive areas for marine life, such as feeding, breeding, calving, and spawning grounds.
• Plan seismic surveys and offshore construction activities so as to avoid sensitive times of the year.
• Identify fishing areas and reduce disturbances by scheduling seismic surveys and construction activities for less-productive times of the year, where possible.
• Maximize the efficiency of seismic surveys to reduce operation times, where possible.
• If sensitive species are anticipated in the area, monitor their presence before the onset of sound-creating activities that have the potential to produce adverse effects, and continue monitoring throughout the seismic program or construction. In areas where significant impacts to sensitive species are anticipated, use experienced observers.
• When marine mammals are observed congregating close to the area of planned activities, seismic start-up or construction should begin at least 500m away.
• If marine mammals are sighted within 500m of the proposed seismic array or construction area, postpone start-up of seismic activities or construction until they have moved away, allowing adequate time after the last sighting.
• Use soft-start procedures—also called ramp-up or slow buildup—in areas of known marine mammal activity. This involves a gradual increase in sound pressure to full operational levels.
• Use the lowest practicable power levels to image the target surface throughout the seismic surveys, and document their use.
• Where possible, use methods to reduce and/or baffle unnecessary high-frequency noise produced by air guns or other acoustic energy sources. OE

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