For Immediate Release, December 9, 2020

Contact:

Miyoko Sakashita, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 844-7108, miyoko@biologicaldiversity.org
Anne Hawke, NRDC, (646) 823-4518, ahawke@nrdc.org
Cyn Sarthou, Healthy Gulf, (504) 525-1528 x 202, cyn@healthygulf.org
Gabby Brown, Sierra Club, 914-261-4626, gabby.brown@sierraclub.org

Trump Administration Allows Oil Companies to Harm, Harass Whales Nearly 9 Million Times with Seismic Blasts in Gulf of Mexico

WASHINGTON— 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,” said Miyoko Sakashita, ocean program director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “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 as many as 8.7 million times in the Gulf of Mexico over just five years. That includes harming a small population of endangered sperm whales as many as 13,000 times each year.

“This decision ignores years of science on the harms of seismic testing,” said 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 33 remaining individuals.

“The marine species that live in the Gulf of Mexico are already showing the stresses of past disasters and the continuing impacts of climate change. Oil industry airgun blasts will do more harm to Gulf whales and dolphins. We were hopeful that BOEM would develop a rule that safeguarded our marine resources from damage,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Healthy Gulf. "Instead, this rule, once again, puts the interests of the oil industry ahead of important marine species. It doesn't make sense to do further harm whales, dolphins, and other marine life.”

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 among dolphins, injure and kill a diversity of fish and invertebrates, and reduce catch rates of commercial fish.

"The Gulf has been treated as a sacrifice zone for too long, and the last thing we should be doing is subjecting this ecosystem to further degradation from increased seismic blasting and oil drilling," said Sierra Club Lands Protection Program Director Athan Manuel. "It's long past time to put a stop to these destructive activities in our public waters."

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, among other things — and required consideration of additional measures to protect the Gulf from future surveys.

Today's rule ends that mitigation, adopts less stringent measures and rejects alternatives designed to reduce harm. 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 at 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 compelling the marine mammal protections and environmental review include NRDC, the Center for Biological Diversity, Healthy Gulf (formerly Gulf Restoration Network) and Sierra Club. They are represented by Earthjustice.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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