Trump Appointees Reportedly Modified Career Scientists’ Proposed Conservation Measures to Appease Oil and Gas Industry Demand for Seismic Airgun Blasting Along the Atlantic Coast

NOAA’s Actions Threaten the Survival of the Highly Endangered North Atlantic Right Whale

Washington, D.C. — Today, Democracy Forward sent letters to the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Scientific Integrity Officer of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) requesting immediate investigations into whether political appointees at NOAA unlawfully altered proposed conservation measures protecting the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale in order to expand offshore drilling. Recent reporting indicates that NOAA political appointees were warned of the severe threats that seismic airgun blasting poses to North Atlantic right whales, yet proceeded to modify career scientists’ proposed guidelines to appease oil and gas industry demands. These reports raise troubling questions about whether political appointees at NOAA 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.”

“In reportedly bowing to political pressure and altering required scientific analysis in the policymaking process, NOAA appointees may have violated federal law and NOAA’s own regulations, and jeopardized the very survival of the North Atlantic right whale,” said Democracy Forward Senior Counsel Michael Martinez. “The Trump administration’s practice of injecting politics into the scientific decision-making process risks NOAA’s credibility as a fact and science-driven agency. An investigation is warranted.”

After President Trump dramatically expanded offshore drilling in 2018, his administration urged the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) — the NOAA office responsible for the conservation of the U.S.’s marine resources — to expedite applications to survey Atlantic coastal waters via seismic airgun blasting. That 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, posing a grave threat to sea life.

[Watch for more on seismic airgun blasting.]

Career officials at NMFS, evaluating the seismic surveying proposal, drafted a scientific report known as a Biological Opinion, and recommended protections for the whales to comply with the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Because seismic airgun blasting affects right whales’ hearing — harming their ability to find food, care for their young, and communicate — the recommendations included science-based measures to protect the right whales, whose population has sunk to just 400 whales worldwide. Oil and gas companies seeking to conduct seismic blasting, however, reportedly objected to these protective measures. Later, the authors of the biological opinion were reportedly informed that NOAA’s political team would amend the Biological Opinion to weaken the protective measures and allow 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.

Democracy Forward requests an immediate investigation into the following:

  • Whether political appointees at NOAA, the Department of Commerce, or the White House were involved in drafting, political review, and implementation of the biological opinion

  • Whether political appointees at NOAA, the Department of Commerce, or the White House directed or suggested specific language in the biological opinion or directed a particular outcome be reached

  • Whether any federal laws, including the ESA and MMPA, or other agency regulations, were violated in connection with the drafting, political review, and implementation of the biological opinion

The Trump administration, including the Department of Commerce, has a record of attacking and undermining science. In late 2019, Democracy Forward filed suit against the Trump administration for refusing to release documents regarding efforts to politicize NOAA. The suit was filed 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. In early 2019, Sec. Ross abruptly removed NOAA’s acting administrator, who had a reputation for shielding NOAA’s climate research from political interference.

The letters were sent to the NOAA Inspector General and NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Officer on March 26, 2020.

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Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.

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