Defending Ocean Ecosystems from Fossil Fuel Exploitation

This week, Capitol Hill Ocean Week and World Oceans Day, (virtually!) gathered ocean lovers around the country to celebrate the biodiversity of our oceans and generate support for conserving 30 percent of our oceans.  

A key part of our work to protect the ocean and sea life is curbing expanded offshore oil and gas development, and the harmful practices used to prospect for offshore oil. Offshore oil drilling has a host of negative effects on the environment, from the harms to marine life caused by oil exploration, pollution from drilling waste, to the devastating environmental consequences of oil spills.

The aftermath of the British Petroleum (BP) disaster is a sobering reminder of the devastation offshore oil drilling can inflict on the environment. A decade after the disaster spilled over 130 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and fouled 1300 miles of coastline, ecosystems in the area are still recovering. 

As covered in National Geographic, a decade later, sea creatures and critical habitat are still suffering from the blowout. Bottlenose dolphins, for example, have been hard-hit, with scientists finding high rates of reproductive failure, lung and heart issues, and early mortality. Endangered sea turtles have not returned to normal reproductive patterns and are not laying as many eggs on Gulf beaches. Over half of the deep-sea coral beds in the area—important habitat for shrimp, crab, grouper, and snapper—have been injured, and it could take decades or longer for them to recover. The oil spill has also permanently injured coastal wetlands—as Mother Jones reports, it killed off wetland vegetation in Louisiana and Mississippi, and scientists expect such areas will not recover.

The Trump Administration’s drive for deregulation raises the concern that another oil spill of this magnitude could happen again. As the country has been consumed with battling a global pandemic and a long legacy of racism, the Administration has been handing out give-aways to Big Oil, including by relieving the Environmental Protection Agency from pursing enforcement actions against polluters, rolling back fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, and expanding oil drilling on public lands. In 2019, the Administration rolled back well-safety rules meant to prevent blowouts like the BP disaster. The Administration has also moved to weaken the environmental review for big federal projects. In early June of 2020, the Administration issued an executive order, which would allow big infrastructure projects like pipelines or fossil fuel export terminals to bypass National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, allegedly to assist with economic recovery. This follows the Administration’s proposal from earlier this year to limit the actions covered by NEPA and water down the required environmental review.    

As we celebrate the abundance and biodiversity of the ocean, we must not only work to set aside critical habitat, but also remain vigilant against the Administration and Big Oil’s efforts to exploit such habitat.

This blog provides general information, not legal advice. If you need legal help, please consult a lawyer in your state.

About the Authors

Irene Gutierrez

Senior Attorney, Nature Program

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