The National Marine Fisheries Service has broadly authorized seismic airgun oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. The long-awaited final rule comes in response to a court-ordered settlement of a lawsuit brought by environmental groups.
The move promotes the expansion of oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico as the Trump administration leaves office. President-elect Biden promised to end fossil fuel leasing on federal lands and waters during his presidential campaign.
“We need better protections for wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico, not more oil exploration that will deafen whales and deepen our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels,” Miyoko Sakashita, ocean program director with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “President-elect Biden needs to put an end to offshore oil leasing because we are in a climate emergency.”
The rule authorizes oil and gas companies to explore for fossil fuels using seismic airguns that are harmful to whales and dolphins. It allows seismic surveys to harm and harass marine mammals up to 8.7 million times in the Gulf of Mexico over five years.
“This decision ignores years of science on the harms of seismic testing,” stated Michael Jasny, Director of Marine Mammal Protection at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s galling but not surprising that the Trump administration, with one foot out the door, would sign off on continually harming endangered whales for the benefit of polluters.”
The rule estimates that seismic blasting will disturb and harass the Gulf’s Bryde’s whales more times than its entire population of just 33 remaining individuals.
As previously reported by WAN, seismic exploration surveys use extensive arrays of high-powered airguns to search for oil. These generate the loudest human sounds in the ocean, short of explosives. The blasts, which can effectively reach more than 250 decibels, can cause hearing loss in marine mammals, disturb essential behaviors such as feeding and breeding over vast distances, mask communications among whales and dolphins, as well as injure and kill a diversity of fish and invertebrates.
Prior to the lawsuit, the oil and gas industry conducted seismic surveys for decades without the permits required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. During the lawsuit’s pendency, a settlement compelled mitigation for seismic surveys, avoiding duplicative surveys and certain area restrictions, and required consideration of additional measures to protect the Gulf from future surveys.
The new rule ends that mitigation, adopts less stringent measures, and rejects alternatives designed to reduce harm to marine life. Although the rule improves upon the lawless history of seismic activities, the plaintiffs say it justifies the harm it anticipates only by ignoring the standards in our wildlife protection statutes.
“We need to be phasing out oil and gas activity in the Gulf, not increasing it,” said Brettny Hardy, attorney for Earthjustice. “This rule will allow unlimited and overlapping seismic activity in the Gulf in sensitive areas, like coastal waters. Why are we harming our already imperiled marine mammals to allow thousands of harmful air gun surveys to take place when we are supposed to be heading toward a cleaner future? We need laws to take on the scope and scale of biodiversity loss and harm to communities that depend on healthy ecosystems, not regulations that propagate the destruction of those systems. The only viable answer for our wildlife and our communities is to put an end to offshore drilling for good.”
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit that are calling for the marine mammal protection and environmental review include NRDC, the Center for Biological Diversity, Healthy Gulf, and Sierra Club. They are represented by Earthjustice.