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Federal agency rejects proposed Gulf of Mexico speed restrictions

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Friday rejected a petition to establish a 10-knot speed limit in the Gulf of Mexico to protect an endangered whale species, a decision urged by U.S. Sen. Katie Britt, U.S. Rep. Jerry Carl and other state leaders.

In September, President Joe Biden proposed a new policy to reduce the size of oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico to protect the Rice’s whale, a whale species considered to be among the most endangered in the world, with a population potentially as low as 51.

Pushed by marine scientists and conservationists, the policy reduced the acreage of permitted offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico by 10%, and limited shipping vessel speeds in certain areas believed to be inhabited by the endangered species.

Leadership at the Port of Mobile, however, strongly opposed the policy, and previously told Alabama Daily News that the restrictions would bring operations at the port “to a virtual standstill.” Both Sens. Britt and Tommy Tuberville were opposed to the proposal, as were oil industry leaders such as those from the Consumer Energy Alliance and the National Ocean Industries Association.

On Friday, NOAA made a ruling on the petition that would have established a 10-knot speed limit in certain areas of the Gulf of Mexico, finding that more conclusive evidence was needed before imposing such a policy.

“I am happy to say that NOAA heard our request and today rejected the nonsensical Rice’s whale petition pushed by far-left activists,” Britt said in a statement. “This proposal would have significantly impeded operations at the Port of Mobile, damaged Alabama’s economy, and harmed commercial and recreational fishing operations off the Gulf Coast.”

Other policies related to the protection of the Rice’s whale, however, will be considered by NOAA in the future, policies that Britt said she would continue to petition against.

“I will continue to fight for common sense to prevail, so that hardworking families in every corner of our nation have the opportunity to live their American Dream,” she continued.

The sale of oil and gas leases that had been scheduled for Nov. 8 was delayed last week by a federal appeals court, pending court arguments that focus on protections for the whales, The Associated Press reported.

The Biden administration announced the sale in March and originally scheduled it for Sept. 27. But, in August, the administration reduced the area available for leases from 73 million acres to 67 million acres, as part of a plan to protect the endangered Rice’s whale. The changes from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, also included the speed limits and new requirements for personnel on industry vessels in some of the areas to be leased.

Oil and gas companies sued, resulting in a Lake Charles-based federal judge’s order throwing out the changes. The administration appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The appeals court initially set the sale for Nov. 8 while the appeal proceeded. On Thursday, however, the court issued an order that delays the sale until some time after the case is argued on Nov. 13.

The Port of Mobile is among the busiest ports in the nation, having generated more than 300,000 jobs and provided $85 billion in economic value to the state in 2021.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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