SAN FRANCISCO - The Center for Biological Diversity today filed a formal notice of intent to sue Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for ignoring marine-mammal protection laws when approving offshore drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico. Since Salazar took office, the Department of the Interior has approved three lease sales, more than 100 seismic surveys, and more than 300 drilling operations without permits required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act that are designed to protect endangered whales and other marine mammals from harmful offshore oil activities.
"Under Salazar's watch, the Department of the Interior has treated the Gulf of Mexico as a sacrifice area where laws are ignored and wildlife protection takes a backseat to oil-company profits," said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for the Center.
Seismic exploration surveys, which are used by oil companies to search for oil, generate sounds loud enough to cause hearing loss in marine mammals, can disturb essential behaviors such as feeding and breeding, and mask communications between individual whales and dolphins. A single seismic survey carried out by scientists in the Gulf in 2007 was estimated to expose more than 3,000 whales and dolphins to dangerous sounds. More than 100 such surveys by the industry have been approved by Salazar since he took office in January 2009, all without any authorization to harm or harass marine mammals.
Similarly, noise from drilling operations can displace whales from important feeding areas. More than 300 drilling operations have been permitted by Salazar, all without authorization under the Marine Mammal Protection Act or the Endangered Species Act. Offshore oil activities also can harm marine mammals through pollution, vessel strikes, marine debris, and oil spills.
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While certain adverse impacts on whales and dolphins are unavoidable if offshore oil development is allowed, mitigation measures that would be required if Interior complied with the law, such as seasonal limitations on seismic surveys during times of the year when endangered whales are present, could greatly reduce impacts on the species.
"The Department of the Interior is well aware of its obligations under the law, as well of the harm to endangered whales that can occur from oil industry operations, yet it has simply decided it cannot be bothered," added Sakashita. "You and I have to follow the law, but Interior Secretary Salazar seems to think that he and the oil companies he is supposedly overseeing do not. That is unacceptable."
The Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act prohibit private entities, such as oil companies, as well as federal agencies, such as the Minerals Management Service - the branch of the Interior Department responsible for managing offshore oil activities - from killing, harming, or harassing marine mammals, unless they have received authorizations and take measures to minimize the impacts of their activities. The Endangered Species Act protects species such as the sperm whale, which is listed as endangered, while the Marine Mammal Protection Act applies to all marine mammals, such as the bottlenose dolphin and the Florida manatee.
Today's 60-day notice of intent to sue, sent by the Center for Biological Diversity to Secretary Salazar and the Minerals Management Service, is a legally required precursor to filing a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act.