New Lawsuit Aims To Protect Endangered Species From Oil Drilling In The Gulf Of Mexico

The Center for Biological Diversity and scientist Stuart Pimm, Ph.D., filed a lawsuit this week challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for failing to comply with the Endangered Species Act in assessing harm to endangered and threatened species from offshore oil and gas activities.

Fundamental flaws undermine the Service’s assessment that oil and gas drilling does not threaten imperiled wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico. In keeping with a 2008 federal memo, the agency purposefully did not consider potential harm from climate impacts of the activity, rendering the assessment incomplete.

“The federal government’s blatant disregard for the climate crisis is alarming. By approving more and more fossil fuel extraction, they’re deepening the problem,” said David Derrick, an attorney at the Center. “As officials ignore climate change, rising seas inundate sea turtle nests, wetland habitat vanishes, and severe storms batter our coastal communities. It’s absurd to lease out our public waters for oil industry profit and pretend Gulf drilling doesn’t cause climate change.”

Greenhouse gas pollution poses a threat to almost every endangered and threatened species in the Gulf of Mexico. The Service’s own records show that birds, sea turtles, and other terrestrial wildlife within its jurisdiction are at risk from sea-level rise and climate change. The Service ignored the climate impacts of drilling, today’s complaint states, because of the longstanding federal memo on disregarding greenhouse gas emissions.

“Incontrovertible scientific evidence points to the massive changes to species on land and in the oceans from our progressively more harmful disruption of the climate caused by the very activities being approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Stuart Pimm, Ph.D., Doris Duke professor of conservation ecology at Duke University.

Federally protected Gulf species harmed by offshore drilling include manatees, six sea turtle species, four beach mice species, and nine bird species. The Service is required under the Act to complete a consultation with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement on oil and gas operations that could harm threatened and endangered species.

The federal oil and gas activities analyzed in the assessment are among the nation’s largest current and future sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Between now and 2030, the federal government predicts, roughly 84 million gallons of oil per day — or 29.4 billion gallons per year — will be extracted from the Gulf of Mexico, emitting over 320 million tons of greenhouse gases annually.

The George W. Bush administration issued the 2008 memo instructing the federal government to ignore the impact of an activity’s greenhouse gas emissions when assessing harm for any endangered species. The Center has twice asked the Department of the Interior to reverse the practice.

“It’s indisputable that the fossil fuels from Gulf drilling will warm the planet even more and contribute to sea-level rise,” said Derrick. “Precious sea turtle nests will be inundated with rising seas, and the dunes for beach mice will become islands. The government has a responsibility to protect these species, and officials are falling down on the job.”

The Service also ignored the harms that would stem from a major oil spill. Although the analysis admitted that up to one oil spill greater than 420,000 gallons in size “is likely to occur” in the next 40 years, the agency claims no endangered species will be harmed. In 2010 the Deepwater Horizon spill dumped more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, harming or killing tens of thousands of animals.

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