A stretch of the southern Atlantic coast needed by endangered right whales to survive will receive more federal oversight under a decision that’s expected to put greater government scrutiny on efforts to locate and drill for oil and gas off the South Carolina seashore.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday declared the entire South Carolina and Georgia coasts as “critical habitat’’ for North Atlantic right whales, rare sea mammals that migrate from New England to southern waters. Parts of north Florida, New England and southern North Carolina also fall under the designation for the first time.
Tuesday’s decision doesn’t necessarily preclude oil and gas drilling in South Carolina or other states and it won’t add new regulations that would impede shipping or commercial fishing, federal officials said.
But it “would definitely make it harder’’ for oil and gas exploration to occur, said David Gouveia, a marine mammal coordinator for NOAA’s fisheries division. The critical habitat designation allows the government to more carefully review the proposals to search or drill for fossil fuels that might be buried in the sea floor, federal officials said. If concerns arise, the government could recommend changes.
Not only will the agency look at the direct impact of oil and gas development on right whales, but it also would examine how that could affect habitat important to the species’ survival, Gouveia said during a conference call with reporters. The government unveiled the proposal about a year ago and finalized the rule Tuesday.
While federal officials said their action is important to protect the critically endangered whales, boosters of fossil fuel development along the South Carolina coast weren’t happy about it.
South Carolina industrial leader Lewis Gossett called the critical habitat designation “irresponsible’’ and another impediment that could drive up costs for companies seeking new energy deposits off the coast. Gossett said it’s important to look for new sources of energy, particularly natural gas, in the ocean off South Carolina.
“You put any additional cost into this and you may, effectively, stop it,’’ said Gossett, who heads the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance. “It’s irresponsible for us to impede the search and the look.’’
Tuesday’s announcement came as plans by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management are underway to allow oil and gas drilling off the south Atlantic coast. The agency has not made a final decision on where the search for oil and gas would occur, or which companies would do the work.
Energy agency officials also are weighing whether to approve leases for companies to conduct “seismic testing,’’ to locate oil and gas deposits. Such tests send off loud booms that critics, including many scientists, say could hurt marine life, including endangered whales.
North Atlantic right whales are among the rarest in the world, with only about 500 remaining. They grow to lengths of up to 50 feet and can weigh 70 tons, but feed primarily on tiny zooplankton and copepods.
Their primary feeding grounds are in New England. But they move south and give birth along the Carolina, Georgia and north Florida coasts from about December to March every few years. Historically, North Atlantic right whale populations have been depleted by whaling, but today they still face threats from collisions with ships, entanglement in fishing gear and habitat degradation, according to NOAA.
Tony Denny, who works for the S.C. Energy Forum, said experts he has talked to suggest the critical habitat designation is more likely to affect development of offshore wind energy than oil and gas. Wind mills would likely fall within the area of critical habitat, but oil and gas development would occur beyond the boundaries, he said.
The federal proposal to allow oil and gas development requires that such work occur 50 miles off the coast. Officials said Tuesday the outer boundaries of the critical habitat designation would end at about 35 miles.
That, however, doesn’t mean it won’t affect oil and gas drilling, said Sarah Uhlemann, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. Seismic testing and drilling “make a ton of noise’’ that can travel long distances into the critical habitat areas. Boats needed to reach oil rigs also would have to go through the critical habitat zone for right whales, she said.
Uhlemann and Hamilton Davis, energy director at the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said they’re glad the federal government took steps to protect right whales.
“Right whales are at an extinction crossroads right now — entanglement in fishing gear, shipping and offshore oil drilling in the Atlantic pose serious risks to their survival,’’ said Uhlemann, whose organization had filed legal action seeking to expand the critical habitat zone. She said the expanded federal oversight is “long overdue. This is one of the most endangered marine mammals.’’
NOAA believes the plan will “further protect essential foraging and calving areas to further improve recovery of this animal,’’ said Eileen Sobeck, assistant administrator for the agency’s fisheries division. “We’re making significant progress in reversing the population decline of the species, and are seeing signs of recovery — up to about 500 animals from the estimated 300 in 1994. But we still have a long way to get to complete recovery.”