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Lawsuit to target oil and gas noise in Gulf of Mexico

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The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the Department of Interior, claiming that the Minerals Management Service (MMS) has been approving oil and gas exploration and development for years without making the companies obtain the “incidental harassment permits” required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.  While the CBD’s press release focuses on the 100 seismic surveys and 300 drilling operations approved since the Obama administration came into office (and uses some pretty inflammatory language aimed at Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar), the Gulf has been one of the world’s most industrialized ocean regions for many decades, and the practices described are long-standing.  According to the CBD press release, the primary impact that has not been addressed is the effects of industry noise on whales and other sea life; CBD point out that some of the sounds are loud enough to damage whale hearing (though fails to note that this occurs only at very close range) as well as disrupt important behaviors (which can occur many miles away). The North Sea is the only other ocean region that’s been so widely impacted for so long by oil and gas development, with West Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, and the South China Sea all working hard to join the party in recent years.

The CBD stresses that the many oil and gas activities in the Gulf must be more thoroughly examined, especially since in some conditions noise can reverberate and become nearly continuous.  While the National Marine Fisheries Service was consulted by the MMS, with NMFS issuing a Biological Opinion that included the assessment that whales would be affected, no harassment  or  permits were issued or required by MMS. (Ed. note: I haven’t read the Biological Opinion, but there’s a good chance that NMFS considered the effects to be negligible; this is a common bottom line in agency consideration of noise impacts, and is the grounds used to issue the harassment permits.  It is likely that while CBD’s suit is based on the procedural question of missing permits, the root of their challenge is a disagreement that the effects are negligible.) The notice of intent concludes by saying: “An appropriate remedy that would prevent litigation would be for the Secretary to initiate the process to authorize the take of marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico pursuant to Section 101(a)(5) of the MMPA by a date certain. Meanwhile, the Secretary must stop approving lease sales, exploration and development plans, and seismic exploration permits in the Gulf of Mexico until and unless it obtains the required authorizations under the MMPA and ESA.”

UPDATE: According to a Reuters report, the Interior Department and the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) announced on Friday the 15th that they would initiate a review of MMS’s NEPA procedures, especially their obligations under the MMPA and ESA.  Earlier in the week, Secretary Salazar had announced a plan to split the MMS into two parts, one of which would collect royalties, with the other overseeing regulatory enforcement.

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