Lawsuit Claims Trump Admin Offshore Drilling Analysis Violates Endangered Species Act

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October 21, 2020

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable with energy sector CEOs in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., April 3, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

By Christopher Yasiejko (Bloomberg) –The Trump administration was sued by several environmental groups that claim it has violated the Endangered Species Act with a long-awaited assessment of the harm that offshore oil and gas drilling could do to wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency responsible for protecting the nation’s ocean resources and their habitat, “irrationally excluded an extremely large spill from its analysis,” deferring to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s assertion that “the probability of such a spill was too low to consider it an effect of the action,” according to the lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in federal court in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The assessment was “arbitrary,” the groups alleged, asking the court to strike it and order the agency, also known as NOAA Fisheries, to produce a new one.

John Ewald, a spokesperson for NOAA Fisheries, said the agency doesn’t comment on litigation.

Fifty Years of Drilling

The Endangered Species Act requires the government to certify that any actions it approves won’t endanger a listed species. The law’s list of Gulf species harmed by offshore drilling includes Bryde’s and sperm whales, Kemp’s ridley and loggerhead sea turtles, and elkhorn corals, according to the complaint.

The evaluation, which NOAA Fisheries issued in March, covers “all activities associated with the Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas program in the Gulf of Mexico” and “is projected to cover 50 years” of Gulf drilling, it says. Before the latest assessment, the most recently completed biological opinion was in 2007, three years before BP Plc’s Deepwater Horizon oil-rig explosion and spill killed or seriously harmed thousands of protected species.

“The probability of an extremely large spill is even higher than a decade ago when the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred and the agencies reinitiated consultation,” according to the complaint. “Gulf drilling is moving into deeper waters,” magnifying the risk of a well blowout and an “extremely large oil spill,” the plaintiffs said.

Climate change has increased the frequency of “hurricanes capable of causing severe damage to oil and gas facilities,” which can trigger catastrophic spills, they said.

Best Science

In the lawsuit, which also accuses NOAA Fisheries of violating the Administrative Procedure Act, the groups ask the court to strike the March assessment for what they say is the agency’s failure to use the best available science. They also asked the court to make the agency issue within six months a new opinion that accurately accounts for the harms and that requires the Department of the Interior to actively protect against them.

Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based environmental law organization, filed the complaint on behalf of groups including the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and the Turtle Island Restoration Network. It names as defendants NOAA Fisheries and Chris Oliver in his capacity as its assistant administrator, responsible for implementing its measures.

The case is Sierra Club v. National Marine Fisheries Service, 20-cv-3060, U.S. District Court, District of Maryland (Greenbelt).

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