Everything you need to know about the new “oil above all” executive order that removes protections for oceans and wildlife, potentially opening the door for the oil industry to pillage and plunder our waters.
Last Friday, President Trump signed an Executive Order (EO) titled “Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy.” This EO leveled a barrage of attacks on ocean protections and promotes harmful offshore drilling at the expense of wildlife and ocean health. Specifically, the order includes:
- Expands by millions of acres the waters considered for oil drilling through a re-write of the country’s five-year development plan. The five-year leasing plan guides where lease sales for oil and gas development can and cannot occur in federal waters offshore. The current plan (covering 2017-2022) was developed through a public process that took years to complete. It deliberately excluded lease sales in the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific oceans, focusing development in the Gulf of Mexico where known resources and the best spill response capabilities exist. The new EO is specifically focused on putting those “off-limits” areas back up for consideration.
- Revokes protections for ecologically sensitive areas and sets in motion further attacks on marine sanctuaries and monuments. In 2016, certain ecologically sensitive areas of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans were recognized for their incredible biological significance and protected from drilling by permanent executive withdrawal. This new EO wipes those protections off the map. It then goes on to instruct the Secretary of Commerce to reconsider all marine national monuments and national marine sanctuaries designated or expanded within the last decade by the Bush and Obama administrations. It also prohibits the Secretary from creating any new marine sanctuaries without a full assessment of their resource extraction potential. This puts at risk wildlife havens like Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Pacific Ocean and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts in the Atlantic. These and other important marine monuments are part of our National Wildlife Refuge System, the only network of public lands and waters dedicated to wildlife conservation. These protected waters shelter pristine coral reefs, deep sea habitats and remote islands that support more than 7,000 marine species, including tropical fish, sea birds and endangered whales, seals and sea turtles.
- Fast tracks harmful seismic testing and rolls back seismic safeguards for marine wildlife. Seismic exploration used by oil companies to locate oil and gas deposits below the ocean floor involves sound wave explosions that can have devastating impacts on dolphins, porpoises, whales and other magnificent creatures of the sea. For example, beluga whales in the Arctic and the endangered North Atlantic right whale in the Atlantic, that rely on high-pitched vocalizations to communicate and hunt, are especially at risk. Seismic testing has been shown to damage hearing, change migration and feeding patterns, and leave lasting effects on social behaviors that reduce reproduction, feeding and other vital behaviors. This EO not only invites seismic testing, it directs that permitting be fast tracked. It also forces the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to reconsider its policy guidance which helps protect marine mammals from the dangerous effects of seismic airguns and explosive detonations.
- Rolls back critical drilling safeguards established in the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster. The oil industry’s track record has clearly shown that where we permit drilling, we must have sound regulations. If history is any indication, offshore drilling has been nothing short of a disaster for wildlife and the idea that the oil industry can be trusted to regulate itself it patently dangerous. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound killed more than 2,500 sea otters, not to mention the more than 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, and over 250,000 seabirds that died within a few days of the spill. The BP Deepwater Horizon Spill in 2010, resulted in the deaths of 11 people! It also led to the death of up to 175,000 sea turtles and injured nearly 35,000 hatchling sea turtles. As many as 84,500 birds of at least 93 species were killed by the spill including brown pelicans, laughing gulls, terns, skimmers and northern gannets which suffered the highest death rates. Marine mammals also experienced elevated death rates, reduced reproduction and disease—of these, the Barataria Bay bottlenose dolphins, the endangered sperm whale and the Bryde’s whale were impacted the most. Some fell victim to contamination from the spill itself, while others succumbed to the toxic dispersants that were spread in the Gulf of Mexico in response to the spill.
After these disasters, we said “never again,” but instead of learning from our past mistakes and building greater safeguards, this EO threatens to roll back protections for our oceans and marine wildlife. Among other things, it challenges the safety regulations put in place after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, including regulations addressing blow out preventers – the failure of which was the direct cause of the entire gulf disaster. It also calls into question rules to address the unique challenges of drilling in the harsh and spill-prone conditions in the Arctic.
What does this all mean for our oceans and the wildlife and communities that depend on them?
Every year hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil and gas are spilled or leaked into our oceans – and that’s not including major catastrophes like the Deepwater Horizon disaster or spillage from damaged rigs or pipelines caused by hurricanes. This kind of oil contamination is a huge problem for wildlife.
Wildlife not immediately killed by oiling can suffer slow deaths from debilitating illness and injury. Animals can ingest the poison through cleaning themselves or through eating other animals, like contaminated fish, which have similarly been exposed and have had the toxins bioaccumulate in their tissues. For marine mammals like whales, exposure to petroleum causes tissue damage in the eyes, mouth, skin and lungs. Sea turtle hatchlings are also particularly susceptible to oiling because they spend much of their time near the water surface, where spilled oil or tar accumulates.
And it’s not just oil spills
Other impacts from the industrialization of our oceans through oil development are significant for wildlife too. In addition to the devastating impacts of seismic testing outlined above, increased vessel traffic, air pollution and the dumping of toxic debris associated with more oil drilling all take a toll. For example, imperiled whales often collide with increased marine traffic due to the presence of oil rigs and the boats serving them. And, hundreds of migrating birds each year die from rig collisions.
Impacts from Sea to Shining Sea
Drilling in the remote, icy and storm-prone Arctic is extremely dangerous. What’s more, increased Arctic drilling will come with a rapid increase in marine vessel traffic in often ice-choked waters which will significantly increase the likelihood of spills. Spills in these remote locations would have deadly consequences for Arctic marine wildlife like humpback whales, polar bears, beluga whales, Pacific walruses, ice-dependent seals and other marine species. Many of these species are also at risk from the deafening impacts of seismic explosions.
The Arctic is also home to many rural coastal communities that rely on these marine systems for sustenance. They are on the front lines in the event of a spill especially when extreme weather can challenge responders’ arrival to the spill site for days. To get an idea of what this might look like, Defenders created Oil Spill Response Scenarios as part of our Bering Strait Response Teaching Tool, to help communities visualize a spill and incorporate their unique knowledge of wildlife and habitat to be part of the response, which will be more critical if drilling increases in the Arctic Ocean as intended under this new EO.
The Atlantic Coast
The Atlantic coast represents one of the most biologically diverse and economically important regions in the East. Protecting our coastlines and offshore waters is critically important for the sustainability our economy, local communities and the protection and recovery of imperiled marine species.
The endangered North Atlantic right whale migrates along the entire East Coast of the United States and would be the species most negatively impacted by exploration and seismic testing which could disrupt their migration paths.
The charismatic piping plover, a threatened species that makes the Atlantic coast its breeding and winter habitat, was already dealt a massive blow following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and another one could spell utter disaster for this shorebird.
The Pacific Ocean
Of all the world’s oceans, the Pacific is the most biologically diverse. It has double the area and more than double the water volume of the Atlantic Ocean. Iconic orcas, charismatic California sea otters and myriad wildlife call the Pacific Ocean and coast home. Protecting Pacific coastlines and waters is crucial to support marine life and coastal wildlife, keep communities safe and boost our national economy.
Oil spills, from offshore drilling or shipping, are one of the greatest threats to the California sea otter.
Because their numbers remain unstable and they live in a rather small geographic area compared to other sea otter populations, they are especially vulnerable to the effects of oil spills. When oil gets on sea otters’ fur it gets matted, which prevents their fur from insulating their bodies. Without this natural protection from the frigid water, sea otters can quickly die from hypothermia. The toxicity of oil can also be harmful to sea otters, affecting their vital organs like their livers, kidneys, lungs and eyes. It is tragic to think of, but the sobering reality is that this is just one example of the price wildlife could pay if offshore drilling was expanded along the Pacific coast.
Defenders Will Fight for Our Marine and Coastal Environments!
We’re going to do everything we can to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.
Expanding drilling and rolling back environmental safeguards in our Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific waters would put our marine wildlife, their habitat, and our climate at grave risk. Not only does it threaten recent efforts to curb carbon pollution and our dependence on fossil fuels, but it opens the door to more toxic oil spills that can wreak havoc on our oceans and the abundant wildlife that live in them.
We will continue to hold this administration accountable for these attacks on our oceans, communities and wildlife. And will challenge in court the patently illegal attempt to unilaterally revoke permanent protections for treasured ocean havens. We will also work at the state level to help pass state legislation that opposes federal drilling and safeguards our coastlines.
Follow us on social media to stay up-to-date on the status of other developments important to wildlife conservation and our work. Don’t forget to sign up for our emails where you will get all the latest news and action alerts to support wildlife.