Offshore Seismic Surveys:

Additional Guidance Needed to Help Ensure Timely Reviews

GAO-18-342T: Published: Jan 19, 2018. Publicly Released: Jan 19, 2018.

Additional Materials:


Jon R. Ludwigson
(303) 572-7309


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

Ships conduct seismic surveys by shooting soundwaves into the ocean floor to collect data, including on geology that might indicate oil and gas.

Applicants wishing to conduct oil and gas surveys must get a permit from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and, if the survey could harm marine mammals, they must obtain authorization from one or two federal wildlife agencies. Some applicants have questioned the speed of the permit process.

We examined the permit process and time frames in different regions. In the report on which this testimony is based, we recommended that wildlife agencies clarify their processes to ensure timely reviews.

Offshore seismic surveys can help determine where oil drilling platforms like this one should go

Aerial photo of an offshore oil rig

Aerial photo of an offshore oil rig

Additional Materials:


Jon R. Ludwigson
(303) 572-7309


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

What GAO Found

The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management's (BOEM) process and time frames for reviewing seismic survey applications differ by region along the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). From 2011 through 2016, BOEM reviewed 297 applications and issued 264 seismic survey permits, and the reviews' time frames differed by region (see table). As part of the process, BOEM may require approved "incidental take" authorizations from the Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) or Interior's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), given the possibility such surveys may disturb or injure marine mammals. BOEM does not have statutory review time frame requirements for issuing permits, and officials said the agency starts its formal review once it determines that an application is complete. In some cases, the agency issued a permit on the same day it determined an application was complete.

BOEM's Seismic Survey Permits Issued from 2011 through 2016

OCS region

Permits issued

How many days review took







Gulf of Mexico



Source: GAO analysis of BOEM data. ׀ GAO-18-60

NMFS and FWS follow a similar general process for reviewing incidental take authorization applications related to seismic survey activities . From 2011 through 2016, NMFS and FWS reviewed 35 and approved 28 such applications across the three OCS regions , including some authorizations related to BOEM permits as well as research seismic surveys not associated with BOEM permit s. NMFS was unable to provide accurate data for the dates the agenc y determines an application is adequate and complete --and FWS does not record this date. For example, based on GAO's review of NMFS data, in at least two cases, the date NMFS recorded the application had been determined adequate and complete was after the date when the proposed authorization was published in the Federal Register . Federal internal control standards call for agencies to use quality informati on. Without guidance on how to accurately record review dates , agencies and applicants will continue to have uncertainty around review time frames. Further, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the agencies are to review one type of incidental take auth orization application--incidental harassment authorization applications --within 120 days of receiving an application for such authorization s. NMFS and FWS have not conducted an analysis of their review time frames. Not conducting such an analysis is inconsis tent with federal internal control standards that call for agency management to design control activities to achieve objectives and respond to risks . Without analyzing the review time frames for incidental harassment authorization applications and compar ing them to statutory review time frame s, NMFS and FWS are unable to determine whether they are meeting their objectives to complet e reviews in the 120 -day statutory time frame.

Why GAO Did This Study

This testimony summarizes the information contained in GAO's December 2017 report, entitled Offshore Seismic Surveys: Additional Guidance Needed to Help Ensure Timely Reviews (GAO-18-60).

For more information, contact Jon Ludwigson at (303) 572-7309, or


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