The Biden Administration quietly reached a settlement with environmental groups late Friday night. These groups had pushed for greater wildlife protections in offshore oil development activities.
In a stipulated agreement, filed at the U.S. District Court of Maryland for the District of Maryland by the National Marine Fisheries Service, it agreed to a series of conditions demanded by a coalition of four eco-groups led by Sierra Club, which in turn agreed to temporarily pause the litigation in the case. The fossil fuel industry, however, has criticized the settlement. They claim it will hamper domestic energy production.
The American Petroleum Institute and EnerGeo Alliance released a statement in which they said that the private settlement agreement reached between the federal government, environmental activists, and the oil industry places unfounded restrictions in place in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. This will severely hinder America’s capacity to produce energy from a region responsible for producing the least carbon-intensive barrels of crude in the world.
The two industry groups said that “despite no evidence to justify this far-reaching prohibition on operations, after extensive data collection, today’s accord undermines the integrity and legitimacy of legitimate conservation efforts and habitat protection, violates Congress’ explicit directives in enacting Inflation Reduction Act and harms America’s energy independence.”
The Biden administration has agreed, as part of the settlement, to expand the protection zones for the Rice’s Whale species. Environmental groups argued that the previous assessments did not adequately protect the species. The government said it did not have “reason” to believe that oil and gas operations in the newly extended Gulf of Mexico protected areas would harm whales.
The administration also agreed to exclude approximately 11 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico with rich oil reserves from future lease sales. This acreage was likely to be available for future leasing sales mandated by the Inflation Reduction Act.
The federal government will also impose new restrictions for oil and gas vessels but not on the thousands of vessels used in other industries. API reports that oil and gas vessels will have to operate at slower speeds. This could reduce the transit window to less than 40% annually, and 25% in the winter.
Overall, these restrictions may have the effect of making future lease sales of oil in the Gulf of Mexico unprofitable.
In October 2020, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth, as well as Turtle Island Restoration Network, sued the NMFS for not properly assessing the impacts of the oil industry on endangered and threatened marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.
The lawsuit was filed after the NMFS coordinated a consultation with multiple agencies to study the impact of all federally regulated activities in oil and gas on species listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of the Gulf of Mexico for the next 50 years. In the original complaint, the groups argued that the NMFS biological opinion resulting in its consultation was not based upon the best science.
The federal government is ignoring the damage offshore drilling causes to sperm and loggerhead turtles in the Gulf. The federal government has ignored science and we need to have the court intervene,” Kristen Monsell said, a senior lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The NMFS refused to comment, and the Sierra Club did not respond to our request for comment.