Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Nunavut August 05, 2014 - 3:39 pm

Lead company in Nunavut seismic survey says communication is key

MKI cited for non-compliance offshore from Newfoundland in 2012

This graphic shows the basics of how seismic testing works open water. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS GRAPHIC)
This graphic shows the basics of how seismic testing works open water. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS GRAPHIC)

Special to Nunatsiaq News

While community groups from Clyde River await the results of a court challenge against seismic testing off the east coast of Baffin Island, Nunatsiaq News did a little digging to flesh out the current project, which is slated to go forward from 2015 to 2020.

In search of commercial quantities of oil, companies using sound wave detectors will map the subsurface of Baffin Bay and Davis Strait.

Leading the survey are two Norway-based companies that gather geoscientific data. Among other materials, the firms research sub-surface layers on-and-off shore, reservoir and well.

The proposal, which received approval from the National Energy Board June 26, outlines a five-year plan to tow an air gun array by ship.

The air gun emits underwater sound pulses, allowing the proponents to map what lies beneath the seabed.

Groups, including the Hamlet of Clyde River, are opposed to the project and have hired a lawyer to appeal the NEB decision to the Federal Court of Appeal.

The company processing and licensing data for mining companies is TGS-NOPEC Geophysical. It had about 800 employees in 2013, and has branch offices in the U.K. and the U.S., according to the TGS website.

The company overseeing ship operation and data gathering is Petroleum Geo-Services, and its wholly-owned subsidiary, Multi-Klient Invest.

PGS has about 2,400 employees, 14 ships and 21 data processing centres, according to Pamela Risan, communications and marketing manager for PGS.

“Basically our job is to image the structures in the sub-surface and build a picture of what it looks like,” Risan said.

The two companies are working together to avoid competition, and minimize the amount of seismic survey done in the region, Risan said.

This aligns with requirements from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, whose website states, “Each seismic survey must be planned to use the minimum amount of energy necessary to achieve operational objectives.”

In the past 13 yeas, the National Energy Board has approved 10 seismic surveys in the Baffin Bay, Davis Strait and North Labrador Sea area, NEB communications officer, Tara O’Donovan said by email.

None of the surveys done in those regions led to any actual drilling, O’Donovan said.

During the search, pulses of compressed low-frequency sound are sent many kilometres into the Earth, typically every eight to 15 seconds.

A cable filled with listening devices then measures how the sound bounces off different sub-surface materials. The difference then gets colour-coded into a picture.

“Marine seismic [survey] is almost exactly like ultrasound imaging during pregnancy,“ Risan said. Once the picture is built, oil companies will decide whether they want to explore any of the pictured areas, she said. 

Seismic surveys have been conducted for a while — enough that, in 2006, air gun arrays worldwide were estimated to produce an amount of energy second to that of underwater nuclear explosions, according to the DFO’s Updated Review of Scientific Information on Impacts of Seismic Survey Sound on Marine Mammals.

The department stipulates that the air gun must be shut down immediately after a marine mammal or sea turtle listed as endangered is observed — the sound is within the sensitive hearing range for bowhead whales, seals and walrus.

For example, bowhead whales kept a 20-30 kilometre distance from a “medium-sized” air gun source while migrating west across the Alaskan Beaufort Sea in the fall, according to the DFO review.

However, the relationship between the sound and the whales’ response during the survey will remain anecdotal, the review stated. 

Another anecdote: like humans, codfish and lobster apparently binge-eat when under stress.

Fish exposed to 200 shots of seismic sound ate 95 per cent more than they usually do two weeks following exposure, according to the DFO’s 2008 research on the Potential Effects of Seismic Energy on Fish and Shellfish.

Keeping an eye on the impact of this activity on marine organisms is a learning process for seismic survey companies.

For example, MKI received a notice of non-compliance from the Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board after conducting seismic testing in an active fishing area in 2012.

“We learnt that clear and regular communication is needed between our operations and stakeholders,” Risan said in response to this incident.

She said PGS has “made a number of improvements” in how it works with stakeholders.

But when asked later what those improvements were, Tore Langballe, senior vice president of PGS corporate communications said by email, “I do not have those details, unfortunately.”

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