It seems like Trump wakes up every morning in the White House and thinks, “how could I screw over the environment today?” He started off by appointing Scott Pruitt, an avid climate denier, as the head of the EPA, and he’s been on a roll ever since. Ditching the Paris Agreement? Sure, why not. Scrap the Clean Power Plan? Hell yeah! Dakota Access Pipeline? Let’s do it. Just last week Trump slashed the size of national monuments in Utah, opening the way for extractive industries to move on in; and the Republican tax bill, which could be sitting on Trump’s desk by Christmas, would allow for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
So, what’s next? How about gutting the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA)? Yeah that sounds good.
The SECURE American Energy Act (H.R. 4239), which is currently being considered by the House, seeks to overhaul federal energy policy, loosening regulations and promoting new energy exploration and development. The bill includes an array of provisions that are geared towards expanding access to energy resources, mostly fossil fuels: safeguards to protect against drilling in the Arctic are getting scrapped; authority to authorize oil and gas drilling on public lands is being given back to individual states; and, the cherry on top is that the bill includes a measure to “streamline” the “burdensome” obstacles put in place by MMPA.
“The SECURE American Energy Act is an industry wish list,” said Michael Jasny, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It would basically steamroll existing law to further oil and gas development off the U.S.”
What’s the MMPA and Why Does Big Oil Want it Gone?
The MMPA is the legislation that protects whales, dolphins and other marine mammals along the U.S. coast. It’s proven incredibly effective in keeping cetacean populations—whales, dolphins and porpoises—healthy, even as many marine populations are plummeting. The problem is that the protections under the MMPA make things like oil exploration, seismic surveys and other development in areas with cetaceans subject to approval by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). And NOAA will only approve a proposed exploration if the number of cetaceans that are threatened by the activity are “small in number,” and their death would have a “negligible impact on those marine mammal species or stocks.”
But now, a provision under the proposed energy bill does away with all that nonsense. It weakens the MMPA by eliminating the whole “only a small numbers of cetaceans” can be harmed thing. Also, the bill would take away NOAA’s authority under the MMPA to oversee the permitting of things like seismic drilling, and give it to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). This might not seem like a huge deal, but it is.
“The effect of this additional provision is to take the regulatory authority away from an expert agency and transfer it to an agency that has no expertise on the conservation of these marine mammals” said Jasny. “The reason for doing this is to house the regulatory authority within the same agency that is charged with offshore oil and gas development...to streamline this entire process for the benefit of oil and gas development.”
For the fossil fuel guys, Christmas has come early. The amendment to transfer the MMPA permitting authority to BOEM “will ensure that permitting for offshore activities, including seismic surveys, are done in a timely, objective and informed manner,” said Randall Luthi, president of the pro-drilling The National Ocean Industries Association in a press release.
The issue is that allowing for seismic surveys to take place without properly assessing the risks can carry some pretty nasty consequences. The sound waves from the air guns that are used for these types of surveys can travel thousands of miles across the ocean and ultimately have catastrophic effects for marine animals, including dolphins and whales. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, seismic studies have been shown to “dramatically depress catch rates of various commercial species (by 40 to 80%) over thousands of square kilometers.”
To top things off, it doesn’t seem like coastal communities actually want seismic surveys and offshore drilling taking place in their waters. When Obama was considering opening up areas in the Atlantic for these types of surveys in 2016, he faced strong criticism from more than 120 cities and towns along the seaboard. So, instead of opening the area for surveys, Obama decided to place a permanent ban on offshore drilling for large areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic coastline. But don’t worry, Trump took care of that pretty quick, signing an executive order opening up those areas for surveys and drilling. And now, with this new energy bill, the few protections that are left are in danger of being scrapped.
“The impetus behind the gutting of the MMPA, and the other provisions in the energy bill is coming entirely from the oil and gas industry,” said Jasny. “Everything in this bill is just completely outrageous.”
The SECURE American Energy Act could come up to a vote in the House anytime in the next weeks or months. If you aren’t onboard with gutting the MMPA and the other previsions in the act, tell your representatives. You can go here to find the office number of your Congressional representative and give them a call.