Interior Secretary Sued For Not Following Endangered Species Guidelines In Gulf of Mexico

The Center for Biological Diversity, which earlier this summer threatened to sue federal officials and BP over Kemp’s ridley sea turtles being killed in oil fires, now is going after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for failing to assess how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is impacting endangered whales and sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico.

The lawsuit filed Monday contends that “(G)overnment approval of drilling has long operated under the assumption that the risk of a spill was too remote to jeopardize the Gulf’s threatened and endangered species. Today’s lawsuit seeks new analysis because massive spills can and do hurt wildlife.”

National seashores that border the Gulf -- Gulf Islands National Seashore and Padre Island National Seashore -- are nesting grounds for a variety of sea turtles, including the endangered Kemp’s ridley species. Last week federal officials oversaw removal of Kemp’s ridley turtle eggs from Gulf shores so they could hatch on beaches facing the Atlantic Ocean.

“While Salazar’s conclusion that exploration drilling in the Gulf posed little risk of a large oil spill was dubious at the time it was made, in light of BP’s calamity that position is completely untenable,” said Miyoko Sakashita, the Center’s oceans director, in a prepared statement. “The public deserves disclosure and a full analysis of the true impacts of oil drilling off our coasts."

According to the Center, “All drilling activities in the Gulf rely upon assumptions made in 2007 that oil spills would not put endangered species at risk. For coastal birds and nesting sea turtles, the former Minerals Management Service (now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement) concluded that an oil spill would have ‘discountable or insignificant effects’ because of its ‘extremely low’ likelihood of reaching  habitat for endangered species.

“Similarly, the government concluded that all Gulf oil activities were unlikely to jeopardize offshore species, including leatherback, loggerhead, green, hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, Gulf sturgeon and sperm whales. This conclusion relied on the assumption that ‘MMS expects that approximately one major oil spill could occur over the 40 years of the proposed action.’”

The bottom line, according to the Center, is that the Interior Department underestimated “the risk of large spills, which can and do occur during offshore oil activities.”

“Like (President) Obama’s April 2 statement that ‘oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills,’ the administration’s assumption that the largest possible oil spill was 15,000 barrels — less than one day of oil spilled from the ruptured BP well — has been proven absurd by the Gulf oil disaster,” stated Ms. Sakashita. “The government must revisit its slipshod analysis that oil drilling poses no risk to the Gulf’s endangered species.”
 
The Endangered Species Act requires all federal agencies, including the former Minerals Management Service, to ensure that any action they carry out does not “jeopardize” a threatened or endangered species.

Secretary Salazar, the center charged, “concluded that oil drilling in the Gulf would not jeopardize species; the Endangered Species Act requires agencies to revisit their conclusions about an action’s impacts if new information calls those conclusions into question. The recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico triggers a legal obligation for the government to revisit its approvals of offshore oil and gas activities.”