OMB Hits the Brakes on Right Whale Rule

A North Atlantic right whale and her calf near Pawleys Island, S.C., two of as few as 300 right whales that have survived hunting and collisions with ships.
A North Atlantic right whale and her calf near Pawleys Island, S.C., two of as few as 300 right whales that have survived hunting and collisions with ships. (By Allison Glass -- Wildlife Trust Via Associated Press)

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By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The international shipping industry, in a battle of leviathans, is asking the White House to water down a proposed federal rule requiring that ships reduce speed to avoid collisions with the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service in June 2006 recommended a 10-knot speed limit around 16 Atlantic ports and coastal areas while the whales are feeding, migrating or reproducing. Shippers say the rule would be expensive and ineffective.

Now, six months after a final draft was completed, the Office of Management and Budget has not approved the rule, and some members of Congress are upset about the delay.

"It is our understanding that the draft final rule is still at OMB and may be undergoing substantive revisions that are not supported by the best available science," six House members said in an Aug. 6 letter to President Bush. Senators, including Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), also wrote the president on behalf of the whales on Aug. 10.

Advocacy groups, including Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, call the delay a case of the White House dragging out the process to avoid a rule that would hurt industry. Shippers challenge the validity of the scientific data the agency used to justify the action.

The World Shipping Council, whose 28 members include A.P. Moller-Maersk Group in Copenhagen and Evergreen Marine of Taipei, Taiwan, argued against the rule in comments filed in October and again in a May 3 letter to the president's budget office.

"We are concerned that the government will take action despite the fact that there is no meaningful scientific basis to conclude that the chosen action will protect whales," the council's letter said. The group says its members carry $500 billion worth of goods into and out of U.S. ports each year.

The speed limit may ultimately cause more deaths because vessels, which usually travel at speeds of 20 knots or more, will be in whale habitats longer, the shippers say. The council said the rule would cost the shipping industry $100 million to $150 million a year in lost time and increased fuel consumption, or two to three times what the government predicts.

The industry prefers an existing plan, in which right whales are spotted and ships warned to look out for them. An alternative would be a speed limit of 14 to 15 knots, the council said.

The budget office, which routinely reviews major rules in 90 to 120 days, has been double-checking the agency's work since February. There has been interagency consultation as well: An employee of the White House Council of Economic Advisers e-mailed marine scientists last month seeking information on whale deaths.

Andrea Wuebker, a spokeswoman for the budget office, said that it is not unusual to involve other agencies in such work and that she could not comment on the review of the whale rule.

National Marine Fisheries Service scientists say fatal collisions with ships average about two a year and are the greatest source of known deaths in a right whale population that has dwindled to about 300. The whale's name comes from the fact that for centuries it was considered the "right" whale to hunt.


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