After President Trump dramatically expanded offshore drilling in 2018, his administration urged the National Marine Fisheries Service to expedite applications to survey Atlantic coastal waters via seismic airgun blasting. This exploration method locates undersea oil and gas deposits by firing deafening blasts of compressed air into the ocean every 10 seconds at all hours of the day.
Career scientists at NOAA evaluated the seismic blasting proposal and drafted a scientific report — known as a Biological Opinion — recommending conservation protections for some 400 North Atlantic right whales left in the wild that comply with the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
When the oil and gas industry objected to these protective measures, Trump-appointed officials at NOAA reportedly altered this Biological Opinion to weaken the protective measures for right whales. The amended scientific report allowed the oil and gas industry to proceed with disruptive seismic blasting so long as they pursued “alternative protections” for the right whales — something former NOAA scientists say is unfeasible.
Oceanic seismic airgun blasting poses a grave threat to all sea life, but particularly so to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, which relies on its hearing for survival. The recommendations in the modified Biological Opinion included science-based measures to protect the right whales, whose population has sunk to just 400 whales worldwide.
These reports raise troubling questions about whether Trump’s political appointees violated federal law and NOAA’s own Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity, which mandates that in “no circumstance may any NOAA official ask or direct Federal scientists or other NOAA employees to suppress or alter scientific findings.”
The Trump administration, including the Department of Commerce, has a record of attacking and undermining science. In late 2019, Democracy Forward filed suit after reports that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire NOAA officials if they did not support President Trump’s false claims about Hurricane Dorian.
On March 26, we requested that NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Officer and the Commerce Department’s Inspector General investigate whether Trump political appointees unlawfully altered proposed conservation measures. NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Committee opened an inquiry into Democracy Forward’s investigatory complaint on April 27, starting a 90-day clock for the Committee to collect and evaluate evidence and produce a final inquiry report.
But in July, NOAA put the inquiry “on hold” — just days after the deadline to release the inquiry report and in consultation with NOAA’s Office of the General Counsel.
In postponing its inquiry, the Scientific Integrity Committee cited separate, ongoing litigation against NOAA over protections for the North Atlantic right whale. However, that litigation and this scientific integrity inquiry are distinct matters; nothing in the Committee’s handbook allows the postponement of an inquiry because of pending litigation. Notably, the Committee did not raise the litigation, which began in 2018, as a hindrance when it confirmed opening an inquiry of our complaint on April 27 — raising questions about the Committee’s belated rationale for the postponement.
We sent another letter on August 26 requesting that the Scientific Integrity Committee resume its inquiry and release a final inquiry report.