Authored by Tom Ozimek via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),
The Biden administration has blocked off millions of acres of federal waters from a planned oil and gas lease sale after settling with environmental groups over habitat protections for a rare species of whale.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) said in an Aug. 23 notice that, as part of Lease Sale 261, it will offer around 67 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling.
That is around 9 percent, or 6.4 million acres, less than BOEM's original proposal, following a settlement with environmental groups that pauses ongoing litigation over environmental protections in the Gulf of Mexico in exchange for excluding Rice's whale habitat from any lease sales.
Environmental groups praised the exclusions, while representatives of the oil and gas industry called the carveouts "unfounded" and said the restrictions would needlessly hamper domestic energy production.
Some lawmakers also objected to the exclusions, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“This Administration continues to kowtow to radical environmentalists at the expense of American energy security and costs to American families," Mr. Manchin said in a statement obtained by The Epoch Times.
Rice's whale is one of the most endangered marine mammal species on the planet, with an estimated population of just 51 individuals, around 100 scientists told the Biden administration in an open letter (pdf) last year.
Arguing that the loss of even a single whale threatens the survival of the entire species, the scientists urged the Biden administration to disallow oil and gas drilling in and around the whale's habitat.
Settlement With Environmental Groups
In order to proceed with the gas lease sale as required by provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the Biden administration agreed to settle with environmental groups that sued the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) over what they said was a flawed biological opinion that failed to sufficiently protect endangered species in the Gulf of Mexico.
In 2020, environmental law organization Earthjustice filed a lawsuit (pdf) against NMFS on behalf of the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and Turtle Island Restoration.
The lawsuit challenged a Trump-era biological opinion on oil and gas activities in the Gulf of Mexico, with the groups saying that the legally binding opinion failed to require sufficient safeguards for endangered species, including Rice's whale (identified in the complaint as Bryde's whale, an alternate name for the species).
Under a settlement agreement (pdf) that was approved on Aug. 24 in the U.S. District Court in Maryland, the groups agreed to pause their litigation. In exchange, BOEM said it will exclude Rice's whale habitat from any lease sales that occur during a 13-month period that the case is on hold while federal agencies reevaluate the 2020 biological opinion.
As the lawsuit made its way through the courts, BOEM said it decided to reinitiate consultation with the NMFS regarding an oil-spill risk analysis and ways to incorporate certain previously developed mitigation measures to protect Rice's whale habitat.
On Aug. 23, BOEM said in a document that provides key information about the sale to potential bidders (pdf) that, as talks continue with the NMFS and as the agency awaits a new or amended biological opinion, it decided to add "certain interim measures to the 'Protected Species' Stipulation to provide additional protections for Rice's whale while the reinitiated consultation is ongoing."
The temporary measures include designating temporary whale-safe zones between 100 and 400 meters in depth across the northern Gulf of Mexico, eastward from the Mexican border with Texas, and westward from Rice's whale core area (as identified in the biological opinion that is the subject of ongoing litigation).
These interim protective measures for Rice's whales are basically what accounts for the 6 million or so fewer acres made available as part of BOEM's lease sale.
At the same time, efforts are underway to permanently designate waters between 100 and 400 deep in the Gulf of Mexico as "critical habitat" zones that are "essential to the conservation of the Rice's whale," according to a July proposal by NOAA Fisheries. The proposal is open to public comment until Sept. 22, 2023.
In addition to the whale habitat zone exclusions, the settlement also includes a requirement for any oil and gas vessel to reduce its speed to 10 knots when traveling through the habitat area.
BOEM's announcement of the 6 million acre carveout for the oil and gas lease was lauded by environmental groups but met with disdain by the fossil fuel industry.
“The simple protective measures in this agreement recognize the first rule of holes: when you find yourself in one, stop digging,” Steve Mashuda, Earthjustice managing attorney for Oceans, said in a statement. “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 American Petroleum Industry (API), a fossil fuel industry lobby, took a dim view of the settlement-related exclusions to the lease sale.
“While the Department of the Interior announced a much-needed offshore lease sale today, the Biden administration continues to throw up roadblock after roadblock to American energy production, prioritizing their campaign promise to stop American oil and natural gas development in federal waters over their duty to meet Americans’ energy needs," Holly Hopkins, API vice president of Upstream Policy, said in a statement.
"This action defies Congress’s mandate in the Inflation Reduction Act, jeopardizes U.S. energy security and violates the Biden administration’s energy obligations to the American people,” Ms. Hopkins added.
The Inflation Reduction Act includes provisions that reinstate previously halted oil and gas lease sales.
Mr. Manchin, who fought for the oil and gas lease provisions in the legislation, denounced the Biden administration's lease exclusions.
"Let me be clear, the exclusion of more than 6 million productive acres from the upcoming offshore oil and gas lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico based on a settlement reached in the name of protecting Rice’s whale while conveniently only targeting oil and gas is yet another example of this Administration's intentional undermining of the strong energy security provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act," Mr. Manchin said.
"The IRA required lease sales to get oil and gas leasing back on track to reduce the cost for working families to cook, heat their homes and fill their gasoline tank,” Mr. Manchin added.