Biden administration sued for failing to protect endangered marine species from offshore oil drilling

The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Biden administration January 26 for failing to protect endangered whales, sea turtles and other species from continued oil and gas drilling off California’s coast.

The lawsuit comes after an undersea pipeline connected to drilling platforms off Orange County ruptured in last October, spewing tens of thousands of gallons of oil into the ocean. The spill fouled sensitive beaches and wetlands, forced fisheries closures, and harmed or killed dozens of fish, birds and marine mammals.

“Endangered whales and other marine life have faced oil spill after oil spill off California’s coast, and the federal government has failed to protect them,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center. 

“These imperiled animals shouldn’t have to suffer and die because the oil industry is fouling our ocean waters. A robust, science-based analysis would show that drilling off California is just too risky to wildlife and our climate and should be phased out quickly.”

Since the spill, several oil sheens have been reported off Huntington Beach. At least one is believed to have come from another offshore pipeline. These incidents follow a long list of other oil industry spills and problems along the coast and across California, including the massive 2015 Refugio oil spill near Santa Barbara.

The Center’s lawsuit, filed against the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and National Marine Fisheries Service, says that the agencies’ existing Endangered Species Act analysis failed to predict or plan for an oil spill as big as the one in Southern California’s San Pedro Bay.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles, seeks a court order requiring the suspension of all new drilling permits off California’s coast while the agencies reexamine the threats of such activities to endangered species.

Prompted by a previous Center lawsuit, the Trump administration completed an Endangered Species Act analysis for oil and gas activity off California’s shores in 2017. It was the first consultation on drilling activities off California completed in more than 30 years.

The Trump administration’s analysis concluded that drilling off the state’s coast would not adversely affect threatened and endangered whales, sea turtles, abalone or other species. The conclusion was based on the assumption that an oil spill is unlikely and that if it did occur it would be limited to 8,400 gallons. 

The Center’s lawsuit highlights how the recent oil spill off California, which was several times larger than the Trump-era estimate, renders that entire analysis unlawful.

The lawsuit also asserts that the existing analysis is not based on the best available science and fails to consider new information regarding the threat to whales of being hit by ships engaged in oil and gas activity — or how existing oil drilling worsens the climate crisis and affects newly designated critical habitat for humpback whales.

The Fisheries Service recently found a 400% increase in humpback mortality and serious injury from human activities, including vessel strikes, since 2018 estimates.

Photo credit: Kate Sampson, NOAA. Photo of an oiled Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle photographed during a boat-based survey by NOAA to collect oiled sea turtles during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response.

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