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In a huge victory for critically endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales, a federal court in Alaska rejected a rule last week allowing offshore oil and gas activities by Hilcorp Alaska. The motion issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA) would have harmed and harassed the protected whales and other oceanic species.
“These little whales have struggled to survive a barrage of man-made hazards, including noise pollution from offshore oil activity. This rule should never have been approved. Instead, federal officials must truly commit to saving these incredible animals by phasing out oil drilling in Cook Inlet,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement.
In a 52-page ruling, Judge Sharon Gleason agreed with plaintiffs Cook Inletkeeper and the Center for Biological Diversity that the agency’s “take authorization” failed to comply with several environmental laws. The authorization allows harm to marine mammals from Hilcorp’s seismic blasting, pile driving, and other offshore-oil development activities over the next five years. She called the rule “arbitrary and capricious” for failing to consider the full extent of harm to this beluga population.
”Federal scientists scratch their heads about why the Cook Inlet beluga whale population continues to decline,” said Bob Shavelson, advocacy director with Cook Inletkeeper. “But when Hilcorp is blasting seismic air guns, dumping toxic waste, and creating harmful noise in the whale’s prime habitat, it’s really no surprise.”
The Marine Mammal Protection Act generally prohibits killing, harming or harassing marine mammals. While sadly, the federal government can authorize certain industrial activities to harm and harass only a “small number” of marine mammals.
The organizations argued that the authorization failed to meet these statutory standards because it underestimated the number of marine mammals harmed, and otherwise failed to carefully study Hilcorp’s impact on critically endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales under both the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.
The court ruled that the agency violated these laws when it ignored the impacts of tugboat noise generated by Hilcorp’s activities. The agency considers such noise to be one of the primary threats to the species, yet disregarded it in approving Hilcorp’s activities.
The court ordered the parties to submit supplemental briefing on the appropriate remedy within 14 days.