Lawsuit seeks protection from drilling

Hands Across the Sand oil protest
Two months before the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, protestors drew a line in the sand against oil drilling on Anna Maria Island’s beaches. - Cindy Lane | Sun

Environmental group Earthjustice has sued the Trump administration in Tampa federal district court for failing to complete a report about offshore drilling’s harms to threatened and endangered species in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a press release.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are required under the Endangered Species Act to complete a study on oil drilling hazards to wildlife with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), according to Earthjustice.

The last time the agencies completed such a study, called a biological opinion, was in 2007, three years before the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion. The disaster left 11 workers dead and dumped millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf for three months, coating miles of wetlands with thick oil, killing birds, fish, and marine mammals and causing tar balls to wash up on Gulf beaches.

Recognizing that the disaster devastated the Gulf ecosystem and its wildlife and invalidated assumptions in the 2007 biological opinion, the Services and BOEM reinitiated the biological opinion process in late 2010. But more than seven years later, as the administration is poised to hold a lease sale next month for oil and gas in the Gulf, the agencies still have not completed a new opinion, according to Earthjustice.

The suit on behalf of the Gulf Restoration Network, Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity is challenging the agencies for unreasonably delaying completion of a new opinion and seeks a court order to compel them to complete it by September.

A new opinion could result in additional safeguards to prevent harm to sea turtles, whales and other threatened and endangered species from oil and gas operations in the Gulf, according to Earthjustice.

“The Gulf of Mexico has long been written off as America’s gas station, jeopardizing Gulf Coast communities, coastal economies, and thousands of whales, sea turtles, dolphins, oysters and other species that wind up in the path of oil and gas spills. We seek to hold the Trump administration accountable to the law in its duty to protect endangered species and compel the oil and gas industry to clean up its act in the Gulf,” Earthjustice attorney Chris Eaton said in a press release.

“For over 10 years, the federal agencies that are responsible for the protection of threatened and endangered species in the Gulf of Mexico have been sitting on their hands. As we saw in the BP disaster, the harm caused by the oil and gas industry wreaks havoc on our Gulf. It’s time for these agencies to do their job and comply with the law,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of Gulf Restoration Network.

“The Gulf has been treated as a sacrifice zone for corporate polluters for far too long,” said Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program. “We will not allow the Trump administration to ignore serious threats to coastal ecosystems in their reckless quest to sell off America’s waters to the fossil fuel industry for offshore drilling.”

“The Trump administration can’t keep turning a blind eye to the damage offshore drilling does to the Gulf’s most imperiled species,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans program legal director at the Center. “Trump officials want to expand offshore drilling and fracking into nearly every corner of the Gulf before they understand what’s out there. Our government has a moral and legal obligation to carefully study the risks to rare whales, sea turtles, and other animals before allowing these dirty, dangerous practices. It’s time for the courts to remind the agencies of this important duty.”