Responsible Seismic Operations in Cook Inlet, Alaska

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Editorials
7/24/2012

Beluga whale

Anchorage, Alaska, July 24, 2012 – Apache Alaska Corporation, a subsidiary of Apache Corporation, is committed to conducting 3-D seismic operations in Alaska’s Cook Inlet in ways that limit the impact on communities and the environment.

In Cook Inlet, as in all areas where Apache operates, the company links environmental responsibility with sound industry operations. Apache has leased approximately 850,000 acres onshore, in tidal areas and offshore in the Cook Inlet Basin, an underexplored oil and gas producing region that was first developed in the 1950s and 1960s. Modern 3-D seismic will enable Apache to gain accurate imaging of the subsurface of the region and identify the most promising locations for exploratory drilling.

Working closely with scientists, stakeholders and state and federal government agencies, Apache has obtained several permits, including one from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) that enables Apache to conduct marine seismic operations in the area while minimizing the impact on Cook Inlet Beluga whales and other marine mammals including killer whales, harbor porpoises, Steller sea lions and harbor seals.

Apache conducts aerial surveys and has trained observers on vessels in an exclusion zone that extends 9.5 kilometers (approximately 6 miles) from the seismic source vessel in order to prevent incidental encounters with protected marine mammals.

When Beluga whales or other protected species are sighted within the exclusion zone, Apache shuts down seismic source operations while the location, distance, and direction of movement of the mammals are determined by the NMFS-qualified Protected Species Visual Observers (PSVOs) deployed on vessels.

Operations are not resumed until the mammals have left the area or until they have not been observed for a designated period of time.

The 9.5-km radius of the exclusion zone was established based on the results of acoustic testing in Cook Inlet by independent experts.

NMFS scientists have determined the sound levels that may disturb marine mammals. In Cook Inlet, an active marine area, there are many sources of man made noise including large and small vessel traffic, aircraft, U.S. Army and Air Force military operations, oil and gas drilling and construction activities such as dredging and pile driving.

The intensity of sound dissipates as it moves farther from the source because the sound spreads out and energy is absorbed by seawater. At 9.5 km from the source, sound from a seismic source is less intense to a Beluga whale than the “clicking” sounds (called echolocation) emanating from another nearby whale.

Besides aerial surveys, Apache has undertaken several additional measures to prevent incidental encounters with marine mammals:

  • The seismic source is initially activated at the minimum possible level, and slowly brought to higher levels over a period of 30 minutes – a “soft start” to operations.
  • Two PSVOs observers equipped with reticle binoculars and big-eye binoculars are on-board source vessels, two are on-board each support vessel, and others are assigned to an onshore station to monitor marine mammal activity. PSVO reports are filed weekly and monthly with the relevant agencies.
  • A passive acoustic monitor is deployed to enable PSVOs to listen for mammal activity after dark and in times of limited visibility.

NMFS regulations and Apache’s permit recognize that some incidental encounters that are not harmful to marine mammals may occur within the exclusion zone. To date, Apache has had no such incidents (termed “Level B takes” by NMFS) involving Beluga whales, killer whales, harbor porpoises or Steller sea lions. The company has reported seven Level B encounters with harbor seals that did not harm the seals.

Apache’s NMFS permit states that any serious injury or death of any marine mammal is prohibited and may result in the modification, suspension or revocation of the permit.

Apache is employing the industry’s first true cable-free wireless seismic technology in order to limit disturbance of communities, wildlife and the environment in the Cook Inlet area.

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