SEA Act bill moves to House vote
By Mary Ann Bragg - Cape Cod Times
Posted Jan 27, 2018 at 7:25 PM
Updated Jan 28, 2018 at 6:29 AM
The House bill known as the SEA Act of 2017, which would reduce permitting delays to increase economic development and support coastal restoration programs, has moved forward for consideration by the full House.
But some see the bill as an example of attempts in Congress to strip away essential protections for endangered species, in this case with changes to the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
“In light of the recent North Atlantic right whale mortality event declared by NOAA last summer, we cannot afford to further endanger these creatures nor expand oil and natural gas exploration off of the New England coast,” U.S. Rep. William Keating, DMass., said in an email.
The bill moved forward Jan. 10 by a unanimous voice vote of the Committee on Natural Resources. The date of the vote was not available Friday, a spokeswoman for Keating said. U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, introduced the bill June 29.
The SEA Act — which stands for Streamlining Government Approvals — would condense the “lengthy permit approval processes” of the Marine Mammal Protection Act that have “caused setbacks and delays for those working to preserve America’s rapidly deteriorating coastline, interrupted U.S. Naval operations and deterred offshore oil and gas exploration,” according to Johnson.
“Excessive government regulation continues to stand in the way of hard-working Americans,” Johnson said, citing the Gulf Coast region in particular.
The bill would set a clear time frame for permits to be accepted or denied by the secretary of the appropriate agency, according to Johnson. Also in the bill, the secretary would have 120 days after an application is deemed complete to issue an authorization for a proposed activity, or the authorization would be deemed approved as stated in the application. The bill would allow certain permits to be extended for more than a year if there has been no substantial change to the marine mammal population. Also, for marine mammals that are covered under both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, the bill would exempt them from the requirement of additional, less rigorous standards used in the ESA process, and prohibit any related federal activity from the ESA’s consultation requirement, according to Johnson.
But Scott Leonard with the Marine Mammal Alliance Nantucket said he considered the SEA Act harmful because it “opens up” the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and paves the way for House bill 4239. That bill intends to boost the sale of offshore oil and gas leases, and offshore wind leases, and allow states to manage development and production of oil and gas on available federal land, and other purposes.
“This is a deliberate first step to 4239,” Leonard said
House bill 4239 was introduced in early November by U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, RLouisiana, and was referred to the Committee on Natural Resources, which passed it. In mid-November, conservationists gathered in Washington, D.C., to stop the bill, which they said would “fast-track” air gun surveys for oil and gas off the U.S. coasts that could harm whales, dolphins and other marine mammals.
“This is a pro-oil and gas industry wish list,” said CT Harry, a marine conservation campaign officer for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, about the bill.
Last year, the North Atlantic right whales experienced an extraordinary and what researchers say is a devastating loss in Canadian and U.S. waters of nearly 4 percent of the total population. That loss, combined with only five newborns last year and a dwindling number of females, has some in government, science and conservation communities considering the possibility of extinction for the right whales.
On Jan. 24, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed what is the first North Atlantic right whale death of 2018, about 100 miles east of Virginia. On Saturday, a veterinarian and two biologists from IFAW, which is based in Yarmouth Port, were en route to Virginia to participate in the necropsy planned for the carcass. The IFAW team members are the only scientists sent from Massachusetts sent to help with the necropsy, said Jennifer Goebel, spokeswoman for the Greater Atlantic region of NOAA Fisheries.
It appears that last year’s trend in right whale deaths is continuing this year, said Brian Sharp, IFAW’s manager for marine mammal rescue and research.
“This is incredibly troubling,” Sharp said.