A lawsuit against the federal government over oil and gas development’s impact to endangered species in the Gulf of Mexico is headed to mediation.
Earthjustice filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and the Turtle Island Restoration Network in 2020, claiming the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the Endangered Species Act by underestimating the damage from the industry to animals like the Gulf of Mexico whale, also known as Rice’s whale in its most recent biological opinion. There are only about 50 of the whales left. The 2010 BP oil spill is believed to have wiped out 20% of their population.
WUSF’s Jessica Meszaros spoke with Chris Eaton, an attorney for Earthjustice, about the latest hearing on Jan. 6 in U.S. District Court in Maryland, and the pending mediation, which will determine how the Fisheries Service will protect endangered species while updating its biological opinion.
Is there anything in particular in the Trump administration’s biological opinion — was there any terminology, any words that you necessarily disagreed with, or was it just a lack of information?
The Department of the Interior, which runs the oil and gas program, basically said that there is no chance that there will be another catastrophic oil spill, like the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. And the evidence in there shows that the risk is not negligible. It’s certainly a real possibility and so one of the problems there is that these agencies are basically pretending that another catastrophic oil spill cannot possibly occur, cannot possibly be a risk for the Gulf of Mexico. And we know that that risk is real, and they need to be paying attention to that.
What was the main takeaway from the January 6 court hearing?
The case was filed in 2020 and there have been a number of procedural issues that we’ve been working through and right as we were … in the middle of briefing the merits, the Fisheries Service, asked the court to what’s known as a voluntarily remand the case to the agencies, so … which effectively would end the litigation and send the case back to the agency to take a do-over. And the problem here is that the agency is saying … we’re not going to produce a new biological opinion for a few years, and we’re not going to make any commitment as to what that is going to contain.
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