Recently Discovered Whale Poses Threat to Oil Drilling

Endangered Rice's whale is at the heart of Gulf of Mexico dispute
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 1, 2023 7:54 AM CDT
Recently Discovered Whale Poses Threat to Oil Drilling
A rig and supply vessel are pictured in the Gulf of Mexico.   (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

A newly discovered (and uniquely American) whale may disrupt the business of oil drilling off the Gulf of Mexico. But despite the critically endangered status of the "Rice's whale," Big Oil is fighting to keep its lease active in those lucrative waters, the Washington Post reports. Rice's whale is only recently known to scientists, who began to confirm suspicions that a separate species swam in the Gulf when one if the whale's dwindling numbers washed ashore in 2019. In 2021, a paper officially identified it as Rice's whale, named after the late biologist who first identified it, Dale Rice. But bad news followed. Only 50 are believed to remain, and a unique quirk leaves the onus of protecting Rice's whale to the United States alone.

"This is the only whale in the world that lives entirely in the waters of one nation," whale biologist Peter Corkeron tells the Post. "I initially wanted to see it called the 'American whale.'" Risks that whale populations face from the drilling industry include spills, deafening noise pollution, collisions with ships, and entanglement in nets and gear. A fifth of Rice's whales were estimated to have perished as a result of 2010's Deepwater Horizon spill. "The science is quite clear that these whales won't survive in an environment with such heavy industry," says Kristen Monsell, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "It would just be an incredible tragedy to watch this whale species go extinct, especially so soon after we learned that it was its own species."

Lobbyists for the oil and gas industry disagree. After the National Marine Fisheries Service moved to designate 28,000 square miles in the Gulf as a critical habitat for Rice's whales this summer, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management tabled 6 million acres of that habitat from an upcoming oil leasing auction. Offshore drillers and some lawmakers sued the Biden administration, resulting in delaying the lease sale until November, per Reuters. An oil lobbyist says removing acreage from the lease "circumvented the law, ignored science, and bypassed public input," while Alabama senator Tommy Tuberville says imposing speed limits on the industry will "detrimentally impact our nation's ability to domestically produce oil and gas in hopes of becoming energy independent." (An alleged "spy" whale has turned up near a new country.)

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