Under a settlement agreement approved today in the U.S. District Court in Maryland, federal agencies will seek better ways to protect the Rice’s whale — a critically endangered species in the Gulf of Mexico — and other imperiled marine species from harmful oil and gas drilling.
The agreement pauses a suit Earthjustice filed in 2020 on behalf of Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and Turtle Island Restoration Network. The groups argued the Trump administration’s official biological opinion did not adequately evaluate the potential for future oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and did not require sufficient safeguards for imperiled whales, sea turtles, and other endangered and threatened marine species from industrial offshore drilling operations.
“The simple protective measures in this agreement recognize the first rule of holes: when you find yourself in one, stop digging,” said Steve Mashuda, Earthjustice Managing Attorney for Oceans. “If we’re going to save Rice’s whales, we need to first stop dropping more oil rigs and more ships in their habitat and making the problem worse.”
The 2010 BP Oil disaster alone killed or seriously harmed more than 100,000 animals protected under the Endangered Species Act, including the Rice’s whale, which lost 20% of its population.
The agreement contains three simple and common-sense protections designed to better safeguard Rice’s whales during the 13-month period that the case is on hold while federal agencies reevaluate the legally binding biological opinion governing Gulf oil and gas activities:
- The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) will exclude Rice’s whale habitat from any lease sales that occur while the lawsuit stay is in effect.
- BOEM will require future oil and gas leaseholders to reduce the risks of vessel strikes to Rice’s whales throughout their northern Gulf habitat Any lease sales held during the stay will include a requirement reducing oil-and-gas-related vessel speed to 10 knots when traveling though the whale’s defined habitat.
- BOEM will notify existing oil and gas leaseholders of the threat that vessels pose to Rice’s whales and remind operators of their responsibilities to avoid “take” (harming, killing, or harassing) of protected species when seeking permits. It will also outline vessel speed reductions and measures operators should take in the whales’ habitat.
Only about 51 Gulf of Mexico whales exist on Earth, and they are the only large whale species resident year-round in United States waters. The primary cause of the whales’ current plight — and the main threat to their very existence — is oil and gas development. Because the whales bask close to the surface, they are especially at risk of ship strikes. Oil and gas seismic blasting also interferes with the sonar that the whales use to communicate, care for their young, and find mates. The National Marine Fisheries Service has concluded that the death of even one female whale jeopardizes the species’ continued existence.
“None of these stop-gap measures are sufficient to protect and recover these whales in the long-term, but they will make conditions relatively better for the whales while the government evaluates what protective measures are needed to assure the species’ long-term survival,“ said Joanie Steinhaus, Ocean Director for Turtle Island Restoration Network. “Rice’s whales already face several threats, including ship strikes, chronic noise, and oil and gas development. Enough is enough — we must step up to the plate to save this species.”
As 100 scientists warned in a letter to the Biden administration last year, these whales are critically imperiled right now, and we are facing the first human-caused extinction of a whale species in history.
“The Gulf ecosystem has suffered immensely from oil spills and offshore drilling operations, and this agreement takes us closer to healing from that harm,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We have plenty of evidence that Rice’s whales, loggerhead sea turtles, and other Gulf species are struggling in this extremely industrial environment, and the warming climate is raising water temperatures to alarming levels this summer. It’s high time to start phasing out offshore drilling.”
The long-term future of Rice’s whales and other Gulf species also depends on BOEM’s upcoming five-year program for oil and gas leasing, which will be released by the end of September. The five-year plan’s initial draft included up to 10 massive new Gulf of Mexico offshore lease sales. If the government proceeds with a plan with new leases, it will lock in 70 years of additional fossil-fuel extraction, resulting in staggering levels of carbon emissions that would continue in the Gulf at a time when the effects of a worsening climate crisis are evident all around us.
“Gulf wildlife, Gulf communities, and the global climate do not deserve — and cannot afford — a business-as-usual approach to future offshore leasing,” said Hallie Templeton, Legal Director for Friends of the Earth. “While we are pleased to have reached this settlement, we are going to keep fighting for no new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters. That is the only path forward.”
“The perpetuation of the Gulf as a sacrifice zone cannot be permitted to continue,” said Devorah Ancel, Senior Attorney for the Sierra Club. “The communities and the species that call this region home have lived under and faced constant threat from offshore drilling, and we are pleased this settlement has been reached. But the work is far from over to ensure the future and safety of the region is secure.”