As oil and gas exploration moves into deeper waters off the US coast, federal officials want to tighten rules on when energy companies must search for archaeological sites before drilling. A proposal released this week would require oil and gas companies to survey any area where they plan to disturb the seabed, not just locations where data or models suggest there is a shipwreck or other cultural site.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) draft rule could have its greatest impact in the Gulf of Mexico. More than 600 shipwrecks or possible shipwrecks have been found there, most by energy companies under existing permitting requirements, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In 2011, for example, oil and gas companies working off Louisiana discovered a shipwreck that NOAA scientists and other scholars last year identified as the 207-year-old whaling ship Industryits crew descendants included by enslaved people and Native Americans.
But many underwater artifacts are overlooked or discovered too late. “By improving our reporting requirements, we can increase the likelihood that these critical assets will be identified before they are inadvertently damaged by one [oil or gas] operators and help ensure compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act,” said James Kendall, BOEM Gulf of Mexico Regional Director.
The current rule relies heavily on predictive models, which may fall short, some scientists say. “It‘It’s very difficult to model exactly where each shipwreck will occur,” says Amanda Evans, marine archaeologist at consultancy Gray & Pape, which conducts underwater surveys for energy companies and other entities. Surveying technology has improved over the years, and the proposed rule, if finalized, will likely lead to more discoveries, she says.
Federal regulators have gradually tightened rules that determine when and where oil and gas companies must conduct archaeological surveys that can uncover shipwrecks and submerged human settlements. But under current rules, operators are only allowed to conduct such an analysis in areas where BOEM already has “reason to believe” that the site may contain an archaeological resource, based on evidence such as data from remote sensing instruments detecting ferrous metals, or an existing sonar images of the seabed. The agency also uses sources such as old news articles, accident reports and busy sailing routes to predict where undiscovered shipwrecks might be.
The proposed rule, released Feb. 15, requires oil and gas companies working on the outer continental shelf — typically 5.5 kilometers or more from shore — to conduct surveys before embarking on new activities that would disturb the seafloor. “BOEM‘The use of forecasting models can underestimate the location of shipwrecks,” the agency said in a statement. The agency drafted the rule after 40 years of evaluating evidence collected from industry, federal and state agencies, and academic institutions and concluding that its models may identify far fewer possible shipwreck locations than exist. When direct investigation uncovers a possible artifact, BOEM typically works with the operator to avoid the site.
Shawn Joy, an underwater archaeologist with Tallahassee, Fla.-based SEARCH, which searches for and studies submerged archaeological sites, said the proposal would better align the requirements for oil and gas companies with the offshore wind industry rules passed in 2020. “Everyone should play by the same rules when it comes to the outer continental shelf,” he says.
A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute said the organization is still reviewing the proposed rule and may do so‘Don’t comment yet. BOEM accepts public comments until April 17th.