Oil and Gas Activities in the Gulf of Mexico Cause Harm to Marine Mammals

As we continue to hear more about animals trapped in the toxic sludge that is the BP oil disaster fall out in the Gulf, NRDC joined a coalition in suing the renamed Minerals Management Service (MMS) – it now styles itself the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (as if rebranding will solve the agency’s problems) – for its failure to comply with our nation’s bedrock environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), when permitting seismic exploration for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico.

Thousands of endangered animals live in the Gulf and are subjected to harassment and injury by seismic exploration in the form of air gun explosions as oil and gas exploration companies search for black gold at the bottom of the Gulf.

BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill has led to a thorough examination of how safety and environmental laws and regulations have been enforced (or ignored) with respect to oil and gas activities in the Gulf of Mexico and on the outer Continental Shelf generally.  Unfortunately, it’s not a pretty picture and uncovering MMS’ record of ignoring basic environmental laws, especially in the Gulf of Mexico, has been disheartening.

The lawsuit we filed yesterday challenges MMS’ practice of approving seismic exploration in the Gulf of Mexico without completing a rigorous environmental review of the activity’s impacts on the environment (including marine mammals) in the form of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).  An EIS is so important here because of the real harm to dolphins, whales, and fish that results from seismic exploration.  As NRDC noted even before the current disaster in the Gulf, seismic surveys use some of the loudest underwater sounds generated by humans to explore oil and gas reserves below the ocean floor.  Day and night, for days and months at a time, thousands of square nautical miles of the Gulf are inundated with high-intensity sound pulses – billions of times more intense than noise levels known to compromise basic life functions of marine mammals and fish – such as feeding, breeding, navigating, and communicating.

With impacts so profound, there is no good excuse as to why MMS has not completed an EIS for seismic exploration – it’s doing one for the same activities planned to take place off the Atlantic Coast and the National Marine Fisheries Service says that one is necessary for the Gulf of Mexico.  Knowing that laziness and bowing to the wishes of the oil industry are not legal defenses – at least not yet – how will MMS justify its failure to comply with America’s most fundamental environmental law?

But regardless of why MMS has failed to prepare an EIS, it must do so now so that the public and decision makers will have a better understanding of how seismic exploration continues to harm marine animals that are already struggling to survive in the wake of the BP disaster.  With oil blanketing Gulf shores – destroying wildlife, habitat, fisheries, local economies, and ways of life that have been passed down for generations – shouldn’t we have a full reckoning of the impacts that oil and gas activities have on the environment, measured from the start, before oil is even found (when our government allows explosive noise to inundate Gulf waters, harming whales and endangered fish), to the end, when oil flows from the ocean floor to refineries and eventually into our cars?  I think so, and hope this lawsuit plays a part in ensuring that understanding.