The Biden administration quietly entered into a court settlement late Friday with a coalition of environmental groups who have pushed for more wildlife protections from offshore oil development activity.
In a stipulated stay agreement filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) agreed to a number of conditions requested by the coalition of four eco groups led by the Sierra Club which, in response, agreed to temporarily pause litigation in the case. Fossil fuel industry groups, though, blasted the settlement, saying it would hamper domestic energy production.
“This private settlement agreement between the federal government and environmental activists places unfounded restrictions on operations in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico that severely hamper America’s ability to produce energy in a region that is responsible for the lowest carbon-intensive barrels in the world,” the American Petroleum Institute (API) and EnerGeo Alliance said in a joint statement.
“Despite no evidence to warrant this far-reaching ban on operations after extensive data collections, today’s agreement undermines the integrity of legitimate conservation and habitat protection efforts, violates the explicit directives of Congress in enacting the Inflation Reduction Act, and harms America’s energy independence,” the two industry groups added.
Under the settlement, the Biden administration agreed to create expanded protection areas for the Rice’s whale species that environmental groups argued weren’t properly protected under previous assessments. However, the government stated it had no “reason to believe” whales would be harmed by oil and gas activities in the newly expanded Gulf of Mexico protection areas.
In addition, the administration agreed to exclude about 11 million acres with rich oil resources in the Gulf of Mexico from future lease sales. That acreage would likely have been available for future lease sales mandated under the Inflation Reduction Act.
And the federal government will impose new restrictions on oil and gas vessels, but not the thousands of vessels operated in other industries in the area. As such, oil and gas vessels must operate at slower speeds, which could cut transit windows to less than 40% of the time annually and 25% during the winter, according to API.
Overall, the restrictions could have the impact of ensuring that future lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico aren’t economically viable.
The case dates back nearly three years when, in October 2020, the environmental group coalition — which additionally included the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and Turtle Island Restoration Network — sued the NMFS for failing to properly assess the oil industry impacts on endangered and threatened marine wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico.
The lawsuit came after the NMFS coordinated a multiagency consultation studying the effects all federally regulated oil and gas activities would have on species listed under the Endangered Species Act in the Gulf of Mexico over the next 50 years. The groups argued in the original complaint that the NMFS’ biological opinion resulting from its consultation was not based on the best science.
“The feds are ignoring the harm offshore drilling in the Gulf does to sperm whales, loggerhead sea turtles and other endangered species. They’ve shunned science, and we need the court to intervene,” Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said at the time.
The NMFS declined to comment and the Sierra Club didn’t respond to a request for comment.