Editorial: Protect marine mammals: reject these two oil-friendly bills

Editorial: Protect marine mammals: reject these two oil-friendly bills

Charleston Post and Courier
April 3, 2018

Members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation, especially coastal Reps. Mark Sanford and Tom Rice, should oppose legislation that would weaken protections for marine mammals and ease the process for permitting for seismic surveys.

Two oil-industry friendly bills by Louisiana lawmakers haven’t garnered as much attention as President Donald Trump’s larger plan to open almost all U.S. coastal waters to oil exploration. But, if approved, the two bills could undermine decades of environmental law and make near-shore waters intolerable for whales, dolphins and other sonically sensitive creatures.

Don’t be fooled by the bills’ clever monikers. H.R. 3133, also known as the Streamlining Environmental Approvals or SEA act, would strike language from the Marine Mammal Protection Act that allows the sonic blasts used in seismic surveys to only disrupt “small numbers” of sea mammals to have the “least practicable impact” on creatures such as whales or dolphins.

Significantly, the bill also would speed up permitting by mandating that regulatory agencies, such as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, process applications within 120 days. After that, permits would be automatically issued.

H.R. 4239, aka the Strengthening the Economy with Critical Untapped Resources to Expand American Energy or SECURE act, is a broader bill that contains the same elements of the SEA act but also applies to onshore oil exploration as well as wind power.

According to the House Committee on Natural Resources, which approved both bills, H.R. 4239 “overhauls federal lands energy policy to promote expanded exploration, development and production of oil, gas and wind resources.”

Both bills are awaiting a floor vote in the House.

Lee Talbot, co-author of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, railed against the legislation in an opinion piece for The Hill last year, saying most Americans wanted to see marine mammals protected, “Yet the law is under attack on its 45th anniversary, especially from the oil and gas industry.”

The pending legislation, he wrote, “would eviscerate core provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to expedite seismic airgun surveys and other industrial activities.”

Seismic surveys cover vast swaths of ocean floor by peppering the water column with sonic blasts that help indicate where oil might be found. The noise — each blast is on par with that of a 12-gauge shotgun — not only disorients sea mammals that use sound to navigate and communicate, it scatters commercial fishing stocks. Studies also suggest the blasts kill plankton up to 1,200 meters deep, disrupting the entire foodchain in survey areas.

South Carolina Republicans shouldn’t be shy about opposing these bills. Both have the potential to bring irreparable harm to our coast and offshore waters. Right whales, which calf off the southeastern coast, are already on the verge of extinction. Only about 450 are left, and experts say no new calves were born this year. The last thing they need are more stressors. And the proposed 120-day limit on permit processing could open all federal waters to seismic surveying much sooner than current law allows.