Ongoing pressure from environmental groups has spurred the National Marine Fisheries Service to take a closer look at the effects of seismic surveys on whales in the Gulf of Mexico. The Obama administration has announced that NMFS will prepare a Letter of Authorization, which will look more closely at the question of whether current seismic survey practices comply with the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Up until now, Gulf oil exploration has only been monitored for effects on endangered species.
Meanwhile, the Department of Interior and a coalition of environmental groups are engaged in settlement talk in a separate lawsuit filed earlier this year, which challenged the first new exploration permits issued for the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon accident.
These legal challenges resemble the successful challenges to Navy sonar training exercises, which also called on the government to do more complete environmental impact studies of practices which were widespread and had been going on with minimal oversight for decades. While the Navy did complete the EIS’s, it’s worth noting that they have not led to major changes in how sonar training takes place; environmental assessments often lead to determinations of “negligible impacts” on wildlife, and it’s common that the most protective alternatives considered in an EIS or EA process is not the one chosen as the final outcome. So while it’s important and useful to make sure that environmental assessment laws are respected, they don’t necessarily lead to fundamental changes in operations. Seismic surveys currently use small “exclusion zones” meant to protect whales from direct injury from sound exposure, but the cumulative impacts of repeated behavioral changes that are triggered by hearing the booming airguns at longer ranges are generally considered to be be transient and insignificant. It remains to be seen whether these subtler but chronic effects will be given more weight in the upcoming assessments.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups say the government has violated the law by avoiding the authorizations from federal wildlife officials. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 requires an authorization for any federal project that could harm or disturb marine mammals. Michael Jasny, a senior policy analyst for NRDC, said today’s announcement is “welcome but also long overdue.”
“Right now, there are seismic surveys taking place all over the Gulf without any permits under MMPA,” Jasny said. “The fundamental principle of environmental law is that you look before you leap, and here, the agencies and industry are still leaping, leaping, leaping without having actually issued regulations that could reduce the harm.”