Floating the Marcus Langseth

Who will be conducting PG&E's controversial seismic studies?



Pacific Gas & Electric’s plan to conduct high-energy, three-dimensional reflective seismology surveys off the Central Coast has drawn the ire of environmentalists and ratepayer watchdogs across the state.

REFLECTIVE SEISMOLOGY FOR DUMMIES :  A National Science Foundation diagram illustrates how high-energy, 3-D seismic surveys collect data about the earth’s crust. - IMAGE COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
  • REFLECTIVE SEISMOLOGY FOR DUMMIES : A National Science Foundation diagram illustrates how high-energy, 3-D seismic surveys collect data about the earth’s crust.

But what’s the real risk of harm to marine life? And will the academic research vessel provide the best data to finally understand the elusive seismic risk surrounding the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant?

If all goes according to schedule, PG&E plans to have a craft in the water by mid-November. It’s a critical window if PG&E hopes to stick to schedule and have data in hand to satisfy federal regulators who want to know that the plant is safe. Remember, there’s an ongoing bid to relicense the facility’s two aging reactors, which are currently set to expire by 2025.

The R/V Langseth

The R/V Marcus Langseth, the vessel PG&E has selected for the job, was built in 1991. In its previous life as a Western Geco exploratory vessel, it bore the name the M/V Western Legend, and by all accounts was an important vessel for the company. Approximately 72 meters long and 17 meters wide, it carries a gross weight of 3,834 tons and maxes out at a speed 12.3 knots.

The Legend was retired from Western Geco’s fleet in the early 2000s, and was bought by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in 2004 to replace its aging research vessel, the R/V Maurice Ewing. It was converted for use by the academic community as a two- and three-dimensional, multichannel seismic vessel.

Its conversion was completed in 2007, and its title was turned over to the National Science Foundation (NSF) later that same year.

The ship’s bread and butter is helping scientists develop a better understanding of processes that can profoundly impact society, such as undersea earthquakes and resulting tsunamis.

The Langseth is fitted for a crew of up to 55 people.

As of 2011, the vessel completed its fourth year of full-time operations, banking roughly 840 science days in that period. 

According to a 2011 report, the Langseth burns approximately 5,200 gallons of oil a day while conducting high-energy 3-D studies.

The contract has yet to be finalized between PG&E and the National Science Foundation for use of the vessel, and neither party is releasing the bidding process reports, but minutes from a 2009 Langseth oversight committee meeting reveal that costs to run 3-D seismic testing came to approximately $84,000 per day.

What the project entails is blasting air guns, fixed to the back of a research vessel, into the water. The blasts are reflected off the sea floor and picked up and recorded by hydrophones trailing behind the boat—dubbed “streamers” in the industry. The Langseth will follow a grid-like formation over an area of 530 square-nautical miles from Guadalupe to Cambria and as much as six miles out into federal waters, in an effort to provide the best map of just what the Earth’s crust looks like—and what kind of earthquake it’s capable of producing—around Diablo Canyon.

Eco-friendly science?

Some of the most vocal concerns have come from the environmental community, which has been kicked into a frenzy over reportedly high levels of “take” being granted to PG&E.

CHECKERED PAST? :  If all goes according to schedule, the National Science Foundation-owned research vessel, the R/V Marcus Langseth, will conduct controversial seismic surveys around Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, despite concerns over whether it’s the best boat for the job. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
  • CHECKERED PAST? : If all goes according to schedule, the National Science Foundation-owned research vessel, the R/V Marcus Langseth, will conduct controversial seismic surveys around Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, despite concerns over whether it’s the best boat for the job.

The utility has applied for and received a Level-B Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) for its work off the Central Coast. A Level-B IHA permit doesn’t allow for harassment leading to the death of even one marine mammal, as opposed to the Level-A, which allows for some degree of mortality.

PG&E Spokesman Blair Jones previously told New Times that should a deceased animal be sighted during the surveys, the U.S. Marine Fisheries Service would step in and investigate, as civil and even criminal penalties are possible in a case of unauthorized Level-A take.

The Langseth crew does have a slew of stated policies in place to mitigate impacts to marine life. The use of a passive acoustic monitoring system, the establishment of a “mitigation zone”—or a set distance in which to steer clear of marine mammals—a number of visual monitors, speed or course alteration, and powering up or down the air guns as appropriate are all methods the crew employs to avoid harming wildlife.

A survey of various daily field reports from past expeditions in 2009 to 2011 show day-to-day operations typically halted repeatedly for “mitigation-turtle” or “mitigation-dolphin.” On April 14, 2011, for example, while performing high-energy testing off the coast of Costa Rica, the ship powered down a total of eight times in a 12-hour shift, due to passing turtles. In total, the Langseth sat idle for three hours, 15 minutes, for mitigation measures.

According to Christine Patrick, spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there will be at least five “qualified” protected species observers aboard the Langseth at all times. She noted that while they’re qualified, they’re not necessarily employees of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

According to guidelines contained in its IHA permit, once operations are shut down, the crew must endure a specified period without wildlife sightings before it’s allowed to ramp back up to full power.

In cases of nighttime testing, Patrick noted, a hydrophone system towed behind the vessel is designed to detect marine mammals underwater. Visual monitoring at night will be carried out with a forward-looking infrared camera, Patrick said.

Regardless of these measures, however, the Langseth’s oversight committee acknowledged that the monitoring issue is often a tough one to get past regulatory agencies.

“Some of the problems with permitting is the public perception of the value of the science versus the negatives of doing seismic work,” a 2009 report from the committee reads. “Characterize the cruises as research projects that use seismics as opposed to a Seismic cruise.”

“We have impacts, but are mitigating to a level of insignificance,” the report stated later.

Though the crew is held by its IHA permit guidelines to limit its take to Level-B, a stakeholder report from 2010 admits that a Level-A take of “marine mammals or threatened and endangered species may occur,” and additional measures need to be taken on a case-by-case basis.

Though there’s never been conclusive evidence, the Langseth’s NSF predecessor, the R/V Maurice Ewing, was involved in an incident in 2002 that has the National Science Foundation and the controversial high-energy testing methodology in the crosshairs of numerous environmental and marine mammal protection organizations.

In September 2002, while the Ewing was conducting an NSF-funded seismic exploration of the continental rifting zone in the Gulf of Mexico, a group of marine mammalogists found the washed-ashore bodies of two roughly 20-foot long beaked whales.

After an evaluation, the group determined that the Ewing’s nearby operations were likely the cause of the stranding. Air gun use on the vessel was temporarily halted, but it resumed shortly thereafter.

Following a request by the Center for Biological Diversity to suspend operations, the NSF and Columbia responded by saying they would only stop the testing if there was “credible” evidence linking their research to the whales’ deaths, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

The center promptly filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a federal district court in San Francisco seeking an injunction to the testing, which was granted, according to court records.

In 2004, while the Ewing was conducting air gun blasting in Yucatan Peninsula in the southern Gulf of Mexico, sheets of coral were reportedly damaged when the ship briefly ran aground, though no injuries to marine mammals were reported.

In August 2009, a Canadian environmental group filed a lawsuit to prevent the Marcus Langseth from using high-energy studies to map hydrothermal vents on the seafloor in light of potential harassment to sea life in a designated marine protected area.

The group, EcoJustice—filing suit on behalf of the Living Oceans Society and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society—lost its legal challenge. However, its actions did force the hand of the Canadian government to get involved in the Langseth’s project, which was ultimately scaled down and subject to specific conditions.

That same year, the Langseth was denied permission from Chinese authorities to pass between Taiwan and China, though no testing was taking place at the time, and environmental concerns weren’t mentioned to have played a role.

According to minutes from a 2010 meeting, the Langseth’s operator reported an undisclosed number of marine mammals and smaller fishing vessels “snagging” the towed arrays during a 2009 cruise.

“It’s had a checkered past,” Michael Jasny, senior policy analyst and director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s marine mammal protection project, told New Times in a phone interview from his office in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Jasny said the council has begun to take a hard stance on high-energy reflective seismology following numerous reports from around the world that suggest a strong correlation between the technology’s use and cases of marine wildlife mortality involving mysterious circumstances.

“The problem is proving it, because the ocean is opaque. It’s difficult to know what’s going on below the surface,” Jasny said.

“Given the limited monitoring on the Langseth, I think that’s a problem,” he added.

Jasny contends that, despite the NSF’s stated intention to be the model for take mitigation, the vessel’s crew can only reasonably monitor for a relatively short distance compared to how far the air blasts travel underwater. He argued that monitoring efforts remain predominately visually based, which presents problems in cases where the Langseth tests at night—which, according to an environmental impact report, it plans to do off the Central Coast.

Jasny added that there’s rarely—if ever—monitoring of the nearby coastlines for signs of stranded or distressed animals.

“For Diablo Canyon, strandings are not the only concern. The big concern is what is going to happen to the harbor porpoises?” he said, referring to the Central Coast’s own Morro Bay harbor porpoise, a population centralized in the harbor and estuary.

“This is a perfect storm. They are the most sensitive species to manmade noise, and this is a small population we’re talking about,” Jasny said. “The question is what will happen to them; will they concentrate in a small area where they can’t feed? They can’t go more than a day or two without eating.”

Jasny added that the PG&E seismic project is also unusual for its proximity to a well-populated coastline, whereas most high-energy seismic surveying takes place in deeper and more secluded waters.

“What you have in Diablo Canyon is certainly unusual to my knowledge, especially given the almost perfect overlap of the survey area with the only known habitat for a highly sensitive population,” he said. “I would say we’re extremely concerned.”

Ray Schmitt, a physical oceanographer who sat on the Langseth’s oversight committee from 2006 to 2010, was out at sea while New Times was working on this story, but he still managed to send an e-mail regarding the topic.

“I imagine that the public has concerns about possible impacts on marine life, in particular marine mammals,” he wrote. “We certainly spent a lot of committee time on the topic.”

Schmitt reiterated that the vessel maintains a crew of observers who use visual searches and passive acoustic monitoring to shut down the sound sources whenever mammals are in the area.

“This is very carefully done and strictly monitored. In any case, I believe that the issue has been much overblown; marine mammals strand all over the place for unknown reasons without seismics, and it’s just ridiculous to blame random strandings on the presence of a seismic vessel,” he wrote.

Schmitt explained that marine life beaching itself has never been fully understood. He described an event in the winter of early 2012, when more than 100 dolphins beached themselves near his home at Cape Cod, for no apparent reason. He added that there were no seismic vessels testing anywhere nearby.

“I think it’s an absolutely crazy double standard when the public attacks these small and very cautiously done academic studies when the oil industry does many times as much seismic surveying with complete impunity,” he wrote.

“I guess that shows how much more we value our oil and gas supplies over life-saving scientific knowledge,” he added.

Are we getting our $64 million worth?

Concerns over wildlife aside, some people are asking another question: Is the R/V Marcus Langseth the fairest vessel of them all, for the price?

New Times found no shortage of academic-types happy to say that the vessel is world-renowned—perhaps a legend in the academic oceanographic research sphere—having sailed to remote reaches of the globe in the name of science.

“She is a very impressive resource for U.S. scientists. Both the sound sources and the hydrophone arrays are much better than anything else available to academic scientists in other countries,” Schmitt wrote of the Langseth. “Of course, the oil industry has even better equipment, but that is not available to academics.”

But questions have been raised as to whether the ship is fitted with equipment that will contribute to the best informational yield, as opposed to an industry—i.e. oil exploratory—vessel.

Dr. Bernard Coakley, a marine geologist with the University of Alaska, has been on the Langseth for academic purposes several times, most recently in 2011, when he blogged about his expedition for the New York Times while in the Chukchi Sea.

Asked for his professional assessment of the vessel for rendering the best information, Coakley declined to weigh in on anything to do with PG&E surveys. He did attest, however, to the caliber of the crew he worked with while aboard the Langseth.

“The equipment is not the most recent, let’s say, but they use it well,” Coakley said in a phone interview.

According to an annual overview report, the Langseth underwent an extensive drydock maintenance period in Portland in 2010 for hull painting and repairs to the tail shaft and its seismic compressor.

As recent as July 2011, reports show the Langseth was still working at modernizing. That year, according to records, the ship made roughly $7 million in purchases and upgrades.

According to the report, the NSF bought some 40 kilometers of streamers from WesternGeco—an oil exploration company—as well as 11 streamer reels and other “lightly used” equipment. According to the report, the operators were able to secure what they claim to be anywhere between $5 and $6 million in equipment—all for a bargain of $400,000. The equipment was purchased “as-is.”

“This is helping to bring the gear to more modern standards,” the report reads.

A WesternGeco spokesperson didn’t return a request for information on equipment sales to the National Science Foundation—and the Langseth in particular—as of press time.

According to records, in July 2011—before PG&E was publicly floating a possible contract with the NSF—the Langseth staff was already in talks with the utility for doing just that. And it appeared they were taking a very tough look at whether they wanted the job.

A report reads: “They are looking at a possible Pacific Gas and Electric 3-D study off Diablo Canyon, California. There are various contract issues to arrange and issues on access to data, insurance, permitting. PG&E is working with the State of CA and the federal agencies to get permitting. The weather window may be an issue.”

The report notes that the 530-nautical mile swath of ocean proposed for the project is significantly larger than areas surveyed in recent cruises, adding that the operator was taking a “serious look” at the work proposed and the possibility of any legal issues that could arise.

San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson, a former geophysicist who spent part of his professional career working for Western Geco, has been outspoken with his concerns about the Langseth. As the county’s representative on the state-mandated Independent Peer Review Panel, a group of third-party scientists and professionals who oversee the design—and later, the results—of PG&E’s proposed studies, Gibson has taken PG&E to task for selecting the Langseth rather than using a tried-and-true industry vessel.

Going with industry is preferable, Gibson has argued, in that the boats are bigger and the equipment is undeniably state of the art, which Gibson said would glean more reliable data, require less time in the water, and hence, less impacts to marine wildlife. Likening the surveys to mowing a lawn, Gibson said industry vessels have access to bigger streamers, which can cover larger swaths of ocean in less time.

“As far as an academic vessel, [the Langseth is] miles beyond anything I saw when I was in academia,” Gibson admitted. “I have no knock on [co-owner Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory], it’s just that the technology available to them will never be as good as in the industrial world.”

And PG&E has taken issue right back with Gibson. At its Aug. 14 permit hearing before the State Lands Commission, Dr. Neil Driscoll, a professor of geology and geophysics at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, spoke on behalf of PG&E in response to Gibson’s testimony.

“[The industry vessels] he talks about have bigger guns. We have optimized this so we minimize impact in the ocean. We target what we want to understand,” Driscoll testified. “I would say we have done our due diligence.”

“I believe we have a sound project,” Jearl Strickland, PG&E’s director of nuclear projects, told SLO County supervisors on Aug. 7. “The differences between PG&E and Dr. Gibson is really a narrow gap, and not a castle.”

Gibson, however, has a powerful ally in his corner against PG&E on the Langseth issue. State Sen. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo), also a former geophysicist, wrote the original assembly bill mandating seismic studies be conducted prior to relicensing Diablo—and he thinks PG&E can do better than the Langseth.

“It struck me as curious when there’s so many industry vendors who do this work,” Blakeslee told New Times. “And [PG&E has] been largely stonewalling those who have tried to be productive on this issue.”

“We’ve got a lot of important questions that there are no easy answers for Gibson said. “What I’m trying to do is represent the people in this county and protect our resources.

“There’s never easy answers when you’re talking nuclear power,” he added.

What will we get?

In August, the California Public Utilities Commission—the state’s primary regulatory agency tasked with overseeing utility operations, which decides what a utility can charge its ratepayers—signed off on allowing PG&E to charge its customers for conducting the study.

The reasoning, according to the commission, is that the knowledge the studies will hypothetically glean will contribute to the overall safety of its customers.

“Enhanced knowledge of the seismic hazard near Diablo Canyon provides a clear benefit to PG&E’s customers as it enables PG&E to continue its safe operation,” commissioners wrote in a proposed decision.

Tucked away not so subtly in the CPUC’s ruling is wording that some people say exposes the larger question: whether the studies are an endgame in themselves, and if the data gathered would ever prevent the relicensing of Diablo Canyon.

The Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, a nonprofit ratepayer advocacy group deeply embedded in the Diablo relicensing issue, is primarily concerned not with the environmental risks of a renewed plant, but with its financial consequences and whether another 20 years of plant operation is in the consumers’ best interest.

As such, the Alliance intervened in PG&E’s request to recover more than $64 million to complete the studies, as opposed to PG&E shareholders footing the bill.

In response to a proposed ruling issued by the CPUC, Alliance attorney John Geesman called the regulator out on its assertion to “enable” Diablo Canyon’s continued operation.

“[The Alliance] agrees that continued operation of the nuclear power plant is one potential outcome of the studies, but believes that enhanced knowledge of the seismic hazard is an end in itself,” Geesman wrote in early September.

“Jumping ahead to such an outcome, before most of the studies have even been initiated, let alone completed, may have a certain prescient quality but does not convey the probity to which a regulatory agency should aspire,” Geesman argued.

The watchdog group also pointed out other supposedly telling language in the controversial CPUC ruling, such as Bartlett’s assertion that the seismic projects “are designed also to provide sufficient information” for PG&E to respond to the NRC mandate that every nuclear plant in the nation must update its seismic hazard and risk analysis following the Fukushima Dai-Ichi earthquake and subsequent meltdown in Japan.

“Even allowing for the possibility that PG&E’s study designers could have gained perfect insight into the NRC’s future requirements … predicting what the NRC will ultimately determine to be ‘sufficient information’ seems to reflect a jaundiced view of scientific inquiry,” Geesman wrote.

PG&E reps maintain that all the information gathered from the studies will be open-sourced and available to the public for peer review. That’s where the Independent Peer Review Panel supposedly comes in. Gibson told New Times that, despite some rocky scheduling and other conflicts within the panel, they’re committed to reviewing PG&E’s post-survey data interpretation to ensure it holds water.

Meanwhile, PG&E, the National Science Foundation, and Langseth regulars continue to hold the vessel on high as the most reasonable choice for the job.

“I think it’s important to note the Langseth is a very valuable national resource that the country should be proud of, and people should welcome the high-quality data it can provide in identifying the seismic hazards in your area,” former oversight committee member Schmitt told New Times. “The knowledge gained will guide planning and future construction standards that could save many thousands of lives.”

According to National Science Foundation spokesperson Maria Zacharias, the agency and PG&E have yet to finalize the contract for the vessel. Such a handshake is likely after PG&E finalizes its National Environmental Protection Act review and secures its permit with the foundation.

Regardless of the aptness of the vessel, PG&E’s small window in which to get the studies underway in mid-November and the agencies from which it still requires permits—the generally staunch California Coastal Commission included—indicate that the studies wrapping up in 2012, as PG&E had initially hoped, is unlikely.

Furthermore, PG&E just recently adjusted the scope of the project—again—in light of concerns from the State Lands Commission and the California Department of Fish and Game. More revisions may come before the R/V Marcus Langseth ever fires a single blast on behalf of PG&E.

“Short answer,” Supervisor Gibson said, “I don’t see how it could be done this year.”

Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at


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