Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Oil and the orcas

Saving the whales isn't just an abstract concept. In the case of the Puget Sound's killer whales, it's a concrete reality.

Earlier this week, the National Marine Fisheries Service released for public comment its conservation plan for protecting the endangered population of orcas of Puget Sound.

Getting NMFS to go this far took some doing; a federal judge ordered this plan after NMFS originally declined to list the orcas as threatened. NMFS changed course late last year, and has been preparing the plan since.

The key is getting enough public comment in support of the "threatened" status. Doing so will trigger the Endangered Species Act's "critical habitat" protections, and force the officials involved -- federal, state, and local -- to begin taking serious steps toward restoring the Puget Sound's health, the decline of which is directly related to the orcas' endangerment.

Here's the NOAA Fisheries plan. Do your part and write in.

As the AP notes:
The draft conservation plan released Monday was prepared following the Fisheries Service's 2003 decision to list the orcas as "depleted" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. That law extends protection only to the species itself; it does not include habitat.

The proposal incorporates public comment gathered through last spring. The Fisheries Service identified three primary concerns: availability of prey, pollution and disruptions from vessels. Oil spills and disease also are possible threats, the agency said in a news release.

Of course, the biggest obstacle in all this is the Republicans currently in power. Not only are they trying to gut the Endangered Species Act (specifically by repealing the "critical habitat" sections), they're also in the process of gutting more environmental laws in the name of reducing post-Katrina energy costs. This measure includes repealing the federal guidelines that kept Puget Sound from being inundated by oil tankers -- and inevitably, oil spills.
The bill would change key portions of the Magnuson Amendment enacted in 1977 to control the expansion of oil refineries and the number of oil tankers entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound.

The House may debate the measure as soon as tomorrow.

Inslee said the bill likely will pass the House but faces tougher opposition in the Senate.

Called the Gasoline for America's Security Act, it was introduced by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, in response to damage that Hurricane Katrina inflicted on the oil industry on the nation's Gulf Coast. The bill aims to streamline efforts to expand existing oil-refinery capacity. Just one portion deals with the Magnuson Amendment.

The amendment, passed as part of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, prevents oil companies from expanding their Puget Sound operations beyond what's needed to serve the growing energy demands of Washington residents.

Even Joel Connelly was able to muster some outrage over this measure:
It was, after all, a state's rights issue: Washington was asserting jurisdiction over its own ports and marine estuaries.

All that gets tossed in this era of right-wing big government.

State's rights? The people deciding what's best for us are apparently Barton and Rep. Greg Walden, a GOP congressman from eastern Oregon. Barton is best known for his harassment of leading scientific researchers on global warming.

Bipartisanship? Out the window. The drive to protect our inland waters was started in the mid-1970s by Republican Gov. Dan Evans. A Shoreline Management Plan forbade building a large port inside Puget Sound to ship oil to the Midwest.

Studies? Who needs 'em? Issues of potential pipeline impacts and oil spills sloshing around our enclosed waters were copiously examined in the 1970s. The University of Washington even evaluated the economic value of keeping Puget Sound unspoiled.

Any new studies today would just get in the way of British Petroleum.

Connelly goes on to list a strategy for countering this plan.

But if he's looking for a symbol around which to rally support, he won't find one more compelling -- and accurate -- than the orcas.

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