A whale of a tale gets a happy ending (for now)

North Atlantic right whales. Credit: Northeast Fisheries Science Center

The world’s most endangered whales got some good news last week. It’s quite a tale.

Before he came down with coronavirus due to consistently ignoring what scientists told him, President Donald J. Trump visited Florida last month to announce he was ordering a halt to any plans for offshore drilling near our Atlantic coast.

President Trump, flanked by Gov. Ron DeSantis, displays his signature after signing a presidential order extending the moratorium on offshore drilling on Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic Coast on Sept. 8, 2020, in Jupiter. Credit: White House

Of course, those offshore drilling plans originated in 2018 with a fossil fuels fan named Donald J. Trump, so this was a convenient election-year flip-flop designed to boost his support in an important swing state.

But — oops! — Trump’s drilling ban left a loophole:

The federal agency in charge of offshore drilling said in a court filing that oil companies could still look for oil off Florida and other coastal states, even in areas where they wouldn’t be allowed to drill for a while (until, say, after the Nov. 3 election).

Five oil industry contractors have spent years seeking federal permits to hunt for oil along the coast from Delaware to Florida using a technique that’s called “seismic surveys” if you’re part of the oil industry and “seismic blasting” if you’re an environmental activist.

No matter what you call it, it involves a boat towing an array of air guns that blast repeated pulses of compressed air into the water. The air pulses then bounce off the sea floor, and the way they bounce back to the ship helps show whether there are deposits of oil and gas.

“The time it takes to bounce back generates a map,” Gail Adams, vice president of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, which represents the five companies, told me this week. “Seismic surveys have been happening all over the world for the past 50 years.”

Meanwhile, there are marine creatures who also depend on underwater sound to navigate their watery world. Whales do. So do dolphins. Imagine the effect of all those seismic survey sound waves bouncing around them, over and over, 10 to 12 seconds apart.

It would be like someone walking into your house during dinnertime and blasting an air horn by your ear, again and again. It probably wouldn’t kill you, but you’d be upset. You’d probably drop your fork and clear out as fast as possible, even if it meant running out into the street.

“There is a potential risk of behavioral changes to marine life,” Adams conceded, but insisted there has been no proof of any physical harm. “There are some behavioral disruptions, but they don’t result in anything permanent. Nothing dies.”

Nevertheless, seismic surveys for oil and gas drilling have been banned along the Atlantic coastline since 1983 because of its effect on whales, and in particular on the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The right whale to hunt

Thousands of right whales once plied the Atlantic, but whaling ships seeking to harvest their oil for lamp fuel nearly wiped them out. Whalers of the 1800s gave Eubalaena glacialis its common name because they were the “right” whale to hunt: They move slowly, migrate near shore, and stay afloat after death.

The hunts were so successful that only 400 right whales now remain in the wild— so few that the New England Aquarium has cataloged them all like death row convicts in a book full of mugshots. Only 100 of them are breeding females.

The remaining right whales spend part of the year off the coast of Canada and New England, but from December to March they swim about 1,000 miles down to warmer waters off Florida. That’s where the females give birth to their calves. Once their calves are strong enough, they swim back north.

Fernandina Beach Mayor John A. Miller. Credit: Fernandina Beach government website.

Fernandina Beach Mayor Johnny Miller loves seeing the blubbery behemoths show up near his town every year. He’s even proclaimed November as “Right Whale Month” in his city.

“They’re close enough we can actually see them from our coastline,” Miller, 53, a bartender at the Palace Saloon (the oldest bar in Florida, established in 1903) told me this week. So many people visit Fernandina to whale-watch, he said, “they’re really vital to our economy.”

Miller is ex-Navy, a veteran familiar with sonar from his days working in submarines. He was appalled when he heard the Obama administration was considering issuing something known as “incidental harassment authorizations” to companies that wanted to hunt for oil in right whale habitat.

“Harassment” in this instance means “bugging the heck out of those poor beleaguered whales with air blasts.” Miller flew to Washington on his own dime to meet with federal officials and explain why that was wrong.

Ultimately, the Obama administration rejected those permits, concluding that allowing the disruption of endangered whales in an area where no drilling would be allowed made no sense. Environmental groups and right whale fans breathed a sigh of relief.

“The last thing right whales needed was to be bombarded with air guns,” said Steve Mashuda, managing attorney for oceans for the environmental law firm Earthjustice.

Then a certain pro-drilling fellow named Trump took office in January 2017. Suddenly, everything the oil companies and their contractors wanted was up for reconsideration. Trump announced he wanted to open the whole Atlantic coast to drilling, so of course the oil companies needed to know how much oil they might find there.

The five harass-the-whales permits got an OK in November 2018. A spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service explained, “We do not expect mortality to occur as a result of these surveys,” as if that were the only side effect that counted. All that was left was for the feds to say yes to the seismic surveys themselves.

Miller flew to Washington again and met with the bigwigs, to no avail. His city was one of scores of coastal communities to file formal objections to the permits. Several environmental groups and nine states (but not Florida!) took the federal government to court trying to block the surveying from taking place. They didn’t have much hope of winning, though.

Yet time — or, rather, the lack of it — was on their side.

Surrender

One of the oil industry contractors waved the white flag last year (I contacted them to find out why but their corporate spokeswoman refused to say). The other four told a federal court last week that their whale-botheration permits would expire at the end of November, so they were giving up too.

Even if they got their surveying permits that very day, they told the judge, there was no way they could get their act together in time to do the survey.

And so, on Tuesday, the federal judge overseeing the lawsuit dismissed it because the contractors had surrendered. Meanwhile the federal fisheries service said that there was no legal way to renew the permits that were about to expire. If the companies want to try again, they’d have to start the years-long permitting process all over from square one.

Adams’ organization put out a press release calling the decision “unfortunate,” but Mashuda and Miller both told me how relieved they were about running out the clock on the oil company contractors. The right whales can now give birth to their calves in relative peace.

The timing on this struck me as particularly fortuitous because of something else that happened last week.

Platform supply vessels battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the infamous 2010 BP oil spill. The explosion killed 11 rig workers and spewed 210 millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard; Wikimedia Commons

Those seismic surveys aren’t the only step for determining whether there’s oil worth drilling for under the ocean. Once the oil companies decide to go after a certain spot, they drill what’s called an “exploratory well.” You wouldn’t think one exploratory well would be a big deal, but one such exploratory well, drilled 10 years ago, was called Deepwater Horizon.

You may recall that particular exploratory well went badly awry. The drill rig exploded, burned, sank to the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, spewed oil for months, sickened thousands, and coated the coastlines of four states with goop, including the pristine white beaches of four Florida Panhandle counties, killing their economies. And that wasn’t the end of it.

Last week, after Hurricane Sally churned through the Gulf, a 5-mile stretch of those same beaches saw oil washing onshore all over again. Experts are checking to see if it’s the remnants of that same BP oil spill from a decade ago, but it sure seems likely. That stuff never really goes away. It just keeps on hanging around and causing problems.

See, it’s not just the whales that benefit from a rejection of oil exploration off the Florida coast. It’s us humans too.

I plan to celebrate this by going next door and blasting an airhorn over and over at my neighbors. I’m sure it won’t kill them.