Ocean News & Technology | 6 October 2015

New Report Details 10 Years of Improvements in Gulf Observation Systems

A new report from the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System Regional Association (GCOOS-RA) details the first 10 years of the nonprofit organization’s work to improve access to ocean observing data that helps to protect and preserve the Gulf and its residents.

The report, “The Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System: 10 Years of Protecting and Preserving the Gulf,” was published in recognition of the organization’s 10th anniversary and released at its September board meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida. The report outlines improvements made in

  • Developing early warning systems for harmful algal blooms
  • Integrating data that supports improved weather and hurricane forecasts
  • Safer navigation in the Gulf’s ports
  • Educating residents on the important role the Gulf plays in their daily lives

At the heart of these improvements is the GCOOS-RA. As a member of the US Integrated Ocean Observing System, GCOOS-RA is responsible for bringing together representatives from the maritime industry, governmental and nongovernmental organizations, marine scientists and resource managers to combine ocean data to provide timely information about the Gulf of Mexico. The data comes from instruments mounted on things such as buoys, autonomous underwater vehicles, and even oil platforms.

BakerHostetler via Mondaq | 1 October 2015

Greater Sage-Grouse Decision Shows That Conservation and Energy Development Can Flock Together

On 22 September, energy developers in the west breathed a sigh of relief when the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the greater sage-grouse does not require protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The FWS noted that, in 2010, it believed that “habitat loss, fragmentation, and inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms” could warrant ESA listing for the grouse. Yet 5 years later, focused public/private conservation partnerships have borne fruit, as FWS now says that “[b]ased on the best available scientific and commercial information, we have determined that the primary threats to greater sage-grouse have been ameliorated by conservation efforts implemented by federal, state, and private landowners.”

The greater sage-grouse’s range historically extends across 11 western states, including prime areas for oil, gas, wind, solar, coal, and uranium development. Given that, billions of dollars of current and prospective investment potentially hinged on the FWS’s recent decision not to list the greater sage-grouse.

The energy industry was understandably nervous because, in November 2014, the FWS placed the Gunnison sage-grouse, a close relative of the greater sage-grouse, under ESA protection. That decision directly impacted 1.4 million acres of designated habitat in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah where Gunnison sage-grouse make their home.

The Associated Press | 25 September 2015

With No Protections for Western Bird, Focus Is on Land Use

Before the applause faded from the US government’s announcement that there would be no endangered species protections for the greater sage grouse, the criticism began over wide-reaching federal conservation plans meant to protect the bird’s habitat across 11 Western states.

The land-use plans were released 22 September after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said additional federal protections weren’t needed for the ground-dwelling bird that’s seen its habitat shrink due to oil and gas drilling, grazing, and other human activity.

The US Bureau of Land Management plans outline measures to help sage grouse across 67 million acres of public lands throughout the west, including 12 million acres of prime habitat where strict limits on oil and gas limits will be enforced.

Federal lands make up more than half the bird’s habitat.

Many of the same state officials who cheered Jewell’s announcement have previously said the new BLM conservation plans were overly restrictive, particularly with oil and gas drilling. Their next step is to try to bring those federal conservation plans in line with their own.

“This doesn’t end the discussion of where we’re going to be,” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said after Jewell’s announcement.

In Wyoming, where the biggest concentrations of sage grouse are found, the plans would limit disruptions like oil and gas drilling as far as six-tenths of a mile away from any sage-grouse breeding area.

Mines and oil and gas drilling pads would need to be spaced no closer than every square mile. Also, drilling would be prohibited for three and a half months each spring during breeding season.

Those restrictions apply only to designated “priority habitat” for the birds, not everywhere they are found. And they are far more permissive than the three-mile limit on breeding sites that scientists recommended.

The State Port Pilot | 25 September 2015

Researchers State Case Against Seismic Testing of Potential Oil, Gas Sites Off Coast

As at least four companies seek permission to conduct seismic airgun testing for oil and gas off the coast of North Carolina, researchers from Duke and seven other universities or environmental groups are calling for such high-decibel activities to be regulated and monitored like other forms of pollution.

One of loudest sounds caused by humans in the ocean, seismic airguns use intense blasts of air to create impulses that can reveal the geologic patterns beneath the ocean floor. The sound, generally in the range of 230 decibels, can be detected as far as 2,500 miles away and can mask the sounds whales and dolphins depend on to navigate, find food, communicate with each other, and avoid predators, wrote Duke’s Douglas Nowacek, an expert on marine ecology and bioacoustics. Nowacek and his colleagues published their findings 1 September in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Nowacek contends it is time for new global standards and strategies to mitigate high-decibel activities.

“In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in the use of seismic surveys for oil and gas exploration and research and for establishing national resource claims on ever-larger geographic scales,” Nowacek said. “Surveys are now occurring in, or proposed for, many previously unexploited regions including parts of the Arctic Ocean and off the US Atlantic coast. The time has come for industries, governments, scientists, and environmental organizations to work together to set practical guidelines to minimize the risks.”

The paper states that long-term exposure to high-decibel noise can lead to chronic stress, disorientation, and hearing damage among marine mammals.

SNL | 25 September 2015

Oil, Gas Industry Leads Private-Sector Push To Reduce Greenhouse Gases, Study Finds

The American Petroleum Institute praised a report that portrays the oil and gas industry as one of the leaders in bringing about a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions between 2000 and 2014.

The report, conducted by T2 and Associates for the industry group, tallied federal and private investments in zero- and low-emissions technologies over the time frame. The report’s findings indicated that the oil and gas sector invested approximately USD 90 billion in emissions technologies during the 14-year period, more than the automotive, electric utility, and agriculture sectors combined.

“This report once again illustrates how the oil and gas industry is continuing to lead all other industries in developing technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Jack Gerard said. “No other industry’s investment comes close to what the oil and gas industry has invested.”

Offshore Energy Today | 17 September 2015

BSEE Inspects Shell’s Oil Spill Response Equipment in Alaska

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) has inspected Shell’s oil spill response equipment staged in northern Alaska.

The bureau said that two members of its Oil Spill Preparedness Division recently traveled to communities along the Arctic to verify and inspect oil spill response equipment staged to support ongoing oil exploration in the Chukchi Sea.

Along with several members of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the team traveled to Wainwright and Prudhoe Bay to verify equipment preparedness and inspect required items in Shell’s approved Chukchi and Beaufort Sea Regional Exploration Program Oil Spill Response Plans.

According to the bureau, the equipment is owned or operated by Alaska Clean Seas and Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation Arctic Response Services, two of Shell’s oil spill removal organizations listed in the company’s plans. The joint inspection team verified that the equipment was available and maintained as detailed in the plans, following inspections of specified equipment, maintenance records, and equipment operability, the BSEE said.

BSEE added that the inspections were a continuation of its commitment and comprehensive effort to ensure safe and environmentally responsible offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic.

The Associated Press | 11 September 2015

North Dakota Oil Spill Cleanup Slowed by Lack of Natural Gas

The cleanup of a massive 2013 oil spill in northwestern North Dakota is being hampered by a lack of natural gas needed to power special equipment that cooks hydrocarbons from crude-soaked soil, a state regulator said.

This 11 October 2013 file photo shows cleanup at the site of a Tesoro pipeline break that spilled more than 20,000 bbl of oil into a Tioga, N.D., wheat field. Cleanup is being hampered by a lack of natural gas needed to power special equipment that cooks hydrocarbons from crude-soaked soil, a state regulator said. (AP Photo/Kevin Cederstrom, File)

Crews have been working around the clock to deal with the Tesoro pipeline break that spilled more than 20,000 bbl of oil into a Tioga wheat field 2 years ago this month.

Bill Suess, an environmental scientist with the state Health Department, said on 9 September that workers will be at the site at least another 2 years baking oil from the soil using a process called thermal desorption, which involves excavating contaminated soil and heating it before putting it back in place.

Workers are trying to bring a second thermal desorption machine online but there is not enough natural gas available commercially in the area to power it, Suess said. A pipeline that feeds the primary unit does not have enough pressure to run a second unit that vaporizes contaminants through heat and pressure, he said.

Read the full story here.

E&E Publishing | 11 September 2015

Industry Hardened by Katrina Girds for Landscape Changed by Climate

Water sloshes up on either side of the narrow highway that leads to the Gulf of Mexico’s biggest service hub for deepwater oil production.

Boats moor—at the same level as car traffic—at local institutions like the Seafood Shed, where reviewers rave you can buy the “biggest dang shrimp you’ve ever seen in your life.”

And then Louisiana’s Highway 1 rises on pillars and stretches surreally for miles out into the sea.

Every major tropical storm or hurricane threatens to close land access to Port Fourchon for days, said Henri Boulet, executive director of the LA 1 Coalition, a group of businesses and municipalities raising funds to improve the road to the port.

“LA 1 might not compete well against a road in California that has 400,000 cars a day, but we have 4,000 cars a day that support 15 to 18% of this nation’s daily energy needs,” Boulet said. “If you lose that access and that workability in the coast, there are implications to every single American. … When the New York markets respond because the Gulf is down, the price of oil goes up, and every consumer from east coast to west coast feels the impacts.”

Port Fourchon, near the toe of Louisiana’s geographic “boot,” is home to companies that provide everything from drilling fluids to customized grocery orders for offshore oil platform and rig workers.

During a storm, the port is designed to withstand the surge waters that can cover incoming roads, Deputy Port Director Davie Breaux explained. Everything is made of concrete, hoisted many feet off the ground or bolted down. The facility is far outside the nearest levee system that protects the tiny town of Golden Meadow, which lies due north of Port Fourchon.

Energy service points such as Port Fourchon are among the first to feel the combined impacts of sinking land, rising seas, and more intense hurricanes. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has predicted that a strong storm could wash out the lower portions of the road before 2040 and that global sea-level rise and regional subsidence is “highly likely” to submerge it before then.

Without road access, Port Fourchon would shut down. Other domestic production would make up for the loss, but there would be cascading business losses in Louisiana, DHS found.

“The water is coming,” said Ursula Emery McClure, an architecture professor at Louisiana State University’s Coastal Sustainability Studio. “The world has to understand the water is coming—in the next 30 years, not the next 5,000 years.”

The oil and gas industry, highly dependent on the Gulf Coast, is acutely aware of that future, McClure said.

Carnegie Endowment | 11 September 2015

Know Your Oil: Oil-Climate Index Compares Resources

Oil is changing. Conventional oil resources are dwindling as tight oil, oil sands, heavy oils, and others emerge. Technological advances mean that these unconventional hydrocarbon deposits in once-unreachable areas are now viable resources. Meanwhile, scientific evidence is mounting that climate change is occurring, but the climate impacts of these new oils are not well understood. The Carnegie Endowment’s Energy and Climate Program, Stanford University, and the University of Calgary have developed a first-of-its-kind Oil-Climate Index to compare these resources.

The Associated Press | 3 September 2015

Texas Regulator Clears Oil and Gas Company of Causing Quakes

The regulatory agency overseeing Texas’ oil and gas industry has determined that a series of small earthquakes in north Texas likely was not caused by drilling operations by an Exxon Mobil subsidiary.

The preliminary findings mark the first decision by the Texas Railroad Commission since it was authorized last year to consider whether seismological activity was caused by injection wells, which store briny wastewater from hydraulic fracturing.

The commission ordered hearings after a university study suggested two companies’ wells were responsible for quakes that shook Reno, Texas, in 2013 and 2014.

Commission investigators concluded that a well where Exxon Mobil subsidiary XTO Energy pumps millions of gallons of the wastewater likely didn’t cause the quakes but also said there was not enough evidence to demonstrate the earthquakes were naturally occurring. Parties have 15 days to respond.

The report was released 31 August, a day before a new law took effect barring Texas cities and towns from banning hydraulic fracturing and limiting local authority to restrict other oil and gas operations.

HARC | 3 September 2015

Houston Advanced Research Center and Galveston Bay Foundation Release 2015 Galveston Bay Report Card

The Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) and the Galveston Bay Foundation have teamed up to create a user friendly grading system to communicate the health of the bay to the public. HARC’s role in the report card was to analyze existing data sets from state and federal agencies and devise a grading system that describes what those trends mean in a way that is easy for the public to understand.

Read the full story here.

Watch the introductory video here.

Read the report card here.


Coral Relocation Mitigates Habitat Effects From Pipeline Construction Offshore Qatar

The Barzan Gas Project is a critical program to deliver natural gas to Qatar’s future industries. The project was expected to affect shallow coral communities during pipeline construction from Qatar’s North field to onshore. To partially meet the state’s environmental clearance for the project while supporting the state’s national vision, RasGas developed a project-specific coral-management, -relocation, and -monitoring plan that incorporated proven methodologies to relocate at-risk coral colonies to a suitable location.

In addition to natural-gas reserves, ­coral-reef communities are regarded as a significant and highly productive natural resource in Qatar, providing refuge and nursery areas for many commercially important fish and shellfish species during portions of their life cycle. Corals off the coast of Qatar grow in one of the more thermally stressed environments in the world. Elevated sea temperature and other coastal pressures such as overfishing, port development, and construction have led to a decrease in local coral-reef communities. Recognizing the importance of these habitats, Qatar included measures in the Qatar National Development Strategy 2011–16 calling for the protection, conservation, and sustainable management of marine and coastal habitats and associated biodiversity.

Fig. 1

The RasGas Barzan Gas Project off eastern Qatar (Fig. 1) is a critical program for the state, delivering natural gas from Qatar’s North field to the onshore processing plant through export pipelines. As part of the construction phase, the Barzan project was expected to affect shallow coral communities through the direct physical removal of coral colonies from trenching activities and through sedimentation and a general deterioration of the habitat immediately adjacent to the trench.

To partially meet the state’s environmental clearance conditions for the project, RasGas developed a project-­specific coral-management, -relocation, and -monitoring plan that incorporated proven methodologies to relocate at-risk coral colonies to a suitable location away from both present and future development to minimize potential harm.

Benthic Environmental Survey
In order to document the status of environmentally sensitive resources within the pipeline corridor and delineate coral and seagrass habitat, a benthic environmental survey was conducted along two predetermined parallel transects within the pipeline corridor from the shoreline (pipeline landfall) to 2 km offshore. Following the habitat delineation, quantitative data were also collected to estimate the number and species of corals within each habitat type.

Survey results showed there were four distinct areas of hard-coral habitat, differentiated by substrate type (e.g., sand, hard bottom) and coral density. By use of the areas of the four characterized hard-coral-habitat types and the estimated coral densities, it was determined that approximately 40,000 coral colonies with a diameter >10 cm were present within the hard-coral-habitat impact footprint.

Hard-Coral Recipient-Site Selection
In order to identify an acceptable recipient for the hard-coral colonies to be relocated from the pipeline corridor, several areas offshore northeast of Qatar were surveyed to assess their suitability for reattaching hard-coral colonies. Sites were selected primarily for their location outside of potential future pipeline construction and depth through a review of environmental-sensitivity maps provided by the Qatar Ministry of Environment and satellite imagery along the northeast coast. Site surveys were conducted at 21 sites within two larger areas to assess their suitability on the basis of the substrate type and topographic relief, dominant biota, coral presence/absence, and urchin presence/absence. Where hard corals were present, coral coverage was assessed qualitatively. An additional eight sites were assessed within an area closer to the project site for the potential deployment of limestone boulders to act as substrate for reattachment if a suitable natural substrate site was not identified.

A review of the survey data indicated that only two natural hard-­bottom sites were suitable with the exception of water depth, which was shallower (<2 m) than the original depth of the corals to be relocated (7–8 m), potentially exposing them to an extreme thermal change. Because of the lack of available hard substrate, it was recommended that native quarried limestone boulders of composition similar to that of the natural substrate be used to create exposed hard-bottom habitat.

Coral-Relocation Program
Approximately 550 limestone boulders, each nearly 1 m in diameter, were power washed to remove excessive sediment, transported from Ras Laffan, Qatar, and deployed into a predetermined recipient site that had been deemed suitable for habitat creation because of its proximity to a healthy reef, water depth, and distance from Ras Laffan. The relatively shallow sand veneer (≤11 cm) overlying a hard-bottom substrate indicated no risk of subsidence.

The rocks were deployed off the side deck of a barge, allowing for varying densities of rock patches and a configuration that would mimic the naturally divergent rocky outcrops. The newly created habitats not only provided a suitable substrate for the reattachment of hard-coral colonies, but additionally provided vertical and horizontal subsurfaces, interstitial spaces, crevices, and voids to create a complex habitat for a wide range of other marine life.

Corals were removed from the areas of highest coral density within the pipeline corridor by divers using hammers and chisels to separate the coral from its substrate and lift it intact to the extent possible. Corals were transported carefully to the recipient site onboard a survey vessel and were temporarily cached in metal trays on the seabed directly adjacent to the boulders until they were ready for reattachment.

Monitoring of Relocated Hard Corals
In order to assess the relative success of the Barzan coral relocation, a monitoring program was designed to permit the detection of and response to significant changes in habitat and community structure because of external disturbances (e.g., thermal extremes). Monitoring surveys will be conducted twice yearly for a minimum of 5 years to

  • Evaluate the attachment status (presence/absence) of reattached hard corals
  • Evaluate relative health of reattached hard corals
  • Assess habitat features to evaluate temporal ecological trends
  • Conduct water-quality monitoring twice yearly
  • Acquire and log on-site-temperature data

Summary and Conclusions
In 2012, more than 1,600 hard-coral colonies were relocated into a newly created habitat of limestone boulders because of the lack of hard bottom. Baseline monitoring of the relocated corals was conducted 3 months post-relocation. ­Monitoring-survey results showed that the relocated corals exhibited health comparable to that of the reference communities and exhibited comparable signs of stress. Future monitoring surveys conducted twice yearly for a minimum of 5 years will provide data to evaluate the overall success of the project and for comparison with other coral-relocation projects in the region.

This paper presents the composite monitoring results from Surveys II (January 2013), III (July 2013), and IV (January 2014), which were assessed for reattached-colony bonding status, ­colony health, benthic characterization, reef-fish assemblage, sediment accumulation, sea-urchin density, and water-column data.

Reattached-Coral-Colony Bonding Status. The substrate-augmentation approach with quarried limestone boulders is deemed to be successful, with fewer coral-colony detachments at the re­attachment site than reported during previous monitoring surveys.

Coral-Colony-Health Assessment. The number of coral colonies with more than 10% of the coral tissue affected by one or more conditions decreased at the reattachment and shallow reference sites from Survey III to Survey IV, indicating increased overall health at these sites.

Benthic Characterization. Low­profile filamentous benthic algae continued to account for the greatest benthic cover within the reattachment site. The algal cover increased not only on the limestone boulders but also the surfaces of the coral colonies, resulting in a decrease in percentage of coral tissue and increase in coral-health stress ranking.

Fig. 2

Reef-Fish Assemblage. Although the number of reef-fish observations decreased during Survey III compared with Survey II, it increased in Survey IV to the highest for the monitoring period. But the number of fish species stayed the same for the last two surveys. The assemblage composition recorded during Survey IV was more similar to those of Surveys II and III than to that of Survey I. An analysis revealed that the differences were because of increased numbers of dory snappers, yellowfin seabream, and Persian cardinalfish recorded during the latter surveys relative to pearly goatfish, a numerical dominant during Survey I. Although not observed in high abundance during the first three surveys, the yellowstripe scad was recorded in high abundance during Survey IV. The Persian cardinalfish, however, has continued to be an abundant member of the assemblage since Survey I. Overall, the assemblage was generally typical of the geographic region and habitat (Fig. 2).

Sea-Urchin Density. With the increase of algal cover, the presence of sea urchins may provide a means to reduce competition for space between the coral recruits and algae. It has been encouraging to observe an increased presence of sea urchins during Survey III compared with Survey II because these herbivores contribute positively to the dynamics of coral recruitment rates and potential survivorship in the reattachment site.

Water-Column Data. Sediment accumulation on and around the boulders has been negligible during Surveys II through IV, validating the selection of the coral-reattachment site. The hydrographic water-column profile data have been as expected in this portion of the Arabian Gulf, with anticipated temporal changes from seasonal fluctuations.

This article, written by Special Publications Editor Adam Wilson, contains highlights of paper SPE 170359, “Coral Relocation as Habitat Mitigation for Impacts From the Barzan Gas Project Pipeline Construction Offshore Eastern Qatar: Survey IV Update,” by Kaushik Deb, RasGas, and Anne McCarthy, CSA Ocean Sciences, prepared for the 2014 SPE Middle East Health, Safety, Environment, and Sustainable Development Conference and Exhibition, Doha, Qatar, 22–24 September. The paper has not been peer reviewed.