Endangered Right and Beluga Whales May Be at Risk From Obama's Offshore Drilling Plan

More than a dozen coastal areas could be opened to oil and gas extraction.

(Photo: Amulf Husmo/Getty Images)

Jan 27, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

The Obama administration intends to open up parts of the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Alaska coastlines to oil and gas development, resulting in up to 14 new offshore drilling operations by the mid-2020s.

The proposal is causing whiplash among environmental and wildlife advocates, who just two days ago lauded President Obama for asking Congress to make the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge off-limits toyou guessed itoil and gas drilling.

“The world is in a very big hole with climate change, and when you’re in a hole the first order of business should be to stop digging,” said Stephen Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International, in a statement. “Unproven reserves and new provinces for fossil fuel production should be off the table. The administration needs to harmonize all of its policies with climate science, not just some of them.”

Along the Atlantic coast, the leases would be off the coastlines of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia—states that have expressed interest in offshore energy development, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell told reporters.

But energy leases in these areas could threaten the recovery of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, which migrates along the Eastern seaboard between Delaware and Florida.

The whales have benefited in recent years from changes in shipping lanes and vessel speed limits along the Eastern seaboard, which have cut the number of whale-vessel collisions. But ongoing testing and drilling for oil and gas will likely increase the region's noise pollution, because it's typically done using sonic blasts to detect and map potential deposits. Scientists have found that North Atlantic right whales change their calls when the underwater racket makes it too hard to hear one another’s vocalizations.

Offshore of Alaska, three leases are proposed under the new plan: one each in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas and one in Cook Inlet, which is home to a declining population of beluga whales that's already facing many threats.

“There's already oil and gas development in beluga habitat in state waters,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which successfully worked to get federal protections for the Cook Inlet whales. “There's sewage. There's noise from vessel traffic. The fish belugas rely upon are going to be swimming through the federal leasing area.”

It's hard to determine the tipping point that could permanently wipe out the Cook Inlet belugas, but additional drilling in the region isn't going to help, she said.

“If there's an oil spill or other contamination, that isn't going to stay in just one place,” Noblin said. “It could go into areas that belugas use regularly.”

Safety and environmental protection are among the Interior Department's top priorities in awarding these leases, Jewell said.

“We're very focused on enhancing safety and environmental management systems, and really creating a culture of safety on the outer continental shelf,” she told reporters, “across all the planning areas where oil and gas development and exploration will be available.”

Jewell told reporters that while she knows Alaska lawmakers are in a froth over the wilderness protection plan for the Arctic refuge—which will prevent energy extraction in Alaska's northeast corner—“we certainly are supporting ongoing development in Alaska.” While “there are areas in the [outer continental shelf] that we believe are too special to develop,” she said, the plan leaves 90 percent of likely oil and gas supplied “on the table.”