POLITICS

Energy Bill Would Make It Easier For Companies To Harm, Kill Marine Mammals

The provision is included in a package that resembles an industry wish list.

11/07/2017 18:58 EST | Updated 11/08/2017 14:01 EST
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WASHINGTON — The House Natural Resources Committee advanced a bipartisan energy bill on Wednesday that, among other things, would strip presidents of their authority to protect marine ecosystems and make it far easier for oil and gas companies to obtain permits to incidentally harm and kill marine mammals.

Introduced by House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and others, the measure has been dubbed the “Strengthening the Economy with Critical Untapped Resources to Expand American Energy Act,” or “SECURE American Energy Act.” At more than 50 pages, it reads like a lengthy wish list of big oil, and is the latest in a series of actions by the Trump administration and congressional lawmakers that prioritize energy development over species conservation.

The package includes a hodgepodge of provisions aimed at expanding access to energy resources, namely fossil fuels; distributing revenues from offshore oil and gas leases to several coastal states; and handing over regulatory authority to states to manage oil and gas development on federal lands within their borders. Another provision would nullify an Obama-era safeguard for exploratory drilling in the Arctic.

Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, told HuffPost on Tuesday that his Republican colleagues “won’t be happy until the oil and gas industry owns every square inch of our public lands and waters, and this bill doesn’t even try to hide it.”

“The Republican energy plan is to cut more corners, write bigger loopholes into the tax code and ignore more environmental standards to keep their rich industry friends happy,” he said in an emailed statement. “Working Americans are going to pay for this bill with their health, their money, their land, and their quality of life.”

The bill also includes a measure first introduced in June by Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) to chip away at the Marine Mammal Protection Act — a 1972 law that the coauthors have called a “burdensome” obstacle to economic development. The measure was supported by industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association for America’s oil and natural gas sector.

During a Tuesday hearing of the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, Johnson said his provision will eliminate much of the red tape that’s held up scientifically supported and safe exploration processes in previous administrations.”

The full committee advanced the bill by a 19-14 vote, largely along party lines.

Bill Clark via Getty Images
Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) introduced a measure in June that would chip away at the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and that measure is included in a new energy bill. Above, he speaks on the phone while on the House steps in January.

The bill, H.R. 4239, is a beefier version of a draft offshore energy bill discussed last month by the committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. It is co-sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) — a vocal critic of national monument designations — and Texas Democrats Vicente González and Henry Cuellar. Over their careers, Scalise, Bishop and Cuellar have received a combined $2 million in donations from the oil and gas sector, according to opensecrets.com.

“Our nation is uniquely positioned to safely develop diverse energy sources, and is capable of satisfying domestic and global demand,” reads a markup memo prepared by the subcommittee’s Republican majority. “Impeding such progress and certainty is a politicized series of laws and regulations.”

They’re trying to short-circuit a process designed to protect some of our most iconic wildlife." Michael Jasny, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s marine mammal protection project

Michael Conathan, director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress, said lawmakers are throwing everything at the wall to see what will stick.  

“The whole goal of this is making it easier at every turn to open as much of the [exclusive economic zone] as possible, without any regard to the effects to protected resources and endangered species,” he told HuffPost. “It’s very clear that they’re just taking the opportunity to put forward legislation that just opens the door to everything big oil has wanted for the last eight years.”

Given the scope of the proposal, its potential effects on marine mammals have received little attention. But the proposed changes to the Marine Mammal Protection Act are significant. The 1972 law protects all marine mammals, including whales, dolphins, seals and manatees, and makes it illegal to incidentally “take” — defined as “to harass, hunt, capture, or kill” — such species without a government permit. 

The bill would strike from the law certain language aimed at minimizing the harm human activities — not only energy development — have on marine mammals. It would also require the departments of Interior and Commerce to adhere to strict deadlines for approving or denying incidental take permits, seemingly shifting the burden from the applicant to the government. If the appropriate agency were to fail to make a decision within the timeframes the proposal establishes, a permit would be automatically approved. 

Republicans voted down several amendments to the bill, including one from Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) to strike Johnson’s provision from the package. 

“Hundreds of thousands of marine mammals will be impacted by the changes made in this bill,” Beyer said Wednesday.

Michael Jasny, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s marine mammal protection project, told HuffPost the bill would essentially render a key component of marine mammal conservation in the U.S. “a dead letter.” And he expects there’s a reason the MMPA provision hasn’t been the subject of the lawmakers’ public statements: “Because it’s outrageous.”

“They’re trying to short-circuit a process designed to protect some of our most iconic wildlife so the industry can go out and undertake highly unpopular oil development activities off the East Coast,” he said. 

Conathan said placing arbitrary timelines on the MMPA permitting process is “egregious” and “short-sighted.” 

Although the word “seismic” is found nowhere in the bill’s language, it is clear what’s driving Johnson and other lawmakers to target the decades-old law. In June, the Trump administration took a step toward expanding offshore oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic when the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed granting incidental take permits for five companies to conduct seismic airgun testing in their search for oil and gas deposits there. 

By firing extremely loud bursts of sound underwater — every 10 to 12 seconds, for weeks or months on end — energy companies hope to map the ocean flood and identify fossil fuel reserves. In January, the Obama administration denied permits for seismic testing in the Atlantic, citing potential risks to marine life. 

“There is no scientific evidence that seismic testing harms mammals,” Scalise spokeswoman Lauren Fine said when asked about the coauthors’ motivations for amending the law and whether it would hinder the ability of government agencies to protect marine species.

Fine pointed to 2014 and 2015 memos from William Brown, the chief environmental officer at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, in which he wrote “there has been no documented scientific evidence of noise from air guns used in geological and geophysical (G&G) seismic activities adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities.”

Despite Fine’s claim — which Jasny dismissed as “industry propaganda that has zero basis in science” — seismic airgun surveying has been shown to affect marine mammals. In a 2013 report submitted to the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, Lindy Weilgart, a biologist and whale expert at Dalhousie University in Canada, concluded “at least 37 marine species have been shown to be affected by seismic airgun noise.”

“These impacts range from behavioral changes such as decreased foraging, avoidance of the noise, and changes in vocalizations through displacement from important habitat, stress, decreased egg viability and growth, and decreased catch rates, to hearing impairment, massive injuries, and even death by drowning or strandings,” she wrote. “Seismic airgun noise must be considered a serious marine environmental pollutant.”

Biologists and environmental advocacy groups have long warned that the seismic blasting poses a threat to numerous species, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, whose population lingers around 500. It is also thought to have devastating impacts on zooplankton, a key food source of many marine animals, according to a study published in June in the journal Nature.

In 2015, dozens of marine scientists sent Obama a letter urging him not to open the East Coast to seismic exploration. Doing so, they said, “is likely to have significant, long-lasting, and widespread impacts on the reproduction and survival of fish and marine mammal populations in the region.” 

The SECURE American Energy Act would also severely limit the president’s ability to designate marine national monuments and protect swaths of ocean from energy development, instead requiring an act of Congress for the withdrawal of offshore waters. 

Obama and other recent presidents protected millions of acres of ocean via the designation and expansion of marine monuments in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. But the Trump administration is moving toward weakening protections for at least three of those monuments by opening them to commercial fishing.

This story has been updated to reflect the House Natural Resources Committee vote.

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