Should the U.S. Navy be above the law when it comes to saving the whales? So asks Marc Kaufman of the Washington Post. Good question. One with much broader implications as we head into a future that will almost certainly include mandatory limits on all sorts of now-common but environmentally deleterious practices.
The proximate issue is whether the Navy can exempt itself from the provisions of the Endangered Species Act and, more specifically, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, in order to carry out its national security duties. The Navy wants to use active sonar (echolocation to a toothed whale) instead of just listening for enemy submarines, which it says are now employed by 41 countries.
Sounds fair enough, if you care about that sort of thing. The problem is active sonar can pose a life-threatening hazard to animals that live in a world of sound:
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, however, that marine researchers began to connect sonar with mass strandings of whales, particularly the deep-diving beaked whale. A 2000 stranding in the Bahamas during a U.S. Navy sonar exercise provided the first conclusive evidence that the sounds were driving some whales ashore and to their deaths.
Sonar-related strandings have been confirmed off the Canary Islands and Spain since then, and other incidents have been reported but not entirely confirmed off Hawaii and Washington state
Lawsuits brought by environmentalists have been working their way through the courts for some time to block naval active sonar exercises off the coasts of North Carolina and California, and this week U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper is expected to release a powerful, but not necessarily final, ruling that tries to balance national security and whale welfare.
But as Kaufman writes, the ruling “could also clarify how closely the military must follow environmental laws.”
I suspect the case could have far-reaching implications beyond the fate of members of the odontocete family of marine mammals. Militaries are forever asking for exceptions to environmental laws. For example, their bases are frequently considered so polluted that they would qualify for Superfund status, and be subject to all sorts of EPA cleanup orders. And when was the last time a U.S. Army truck was subject to mileage or tailpipe standards?
Making matters worse are ill-informed opinions from our military leaders, who just can’t bring themselves to believe that what they want to do might be a bad thing. Consider this quote from Kaufman’s story:
Rear Adm. Lawrence Rice, the Navy’s director for environmental readiness, said that given the number of whales and other marine mammals killed by ship strikes, fishing nets and loud sounds from sources including oil and gas exploration, he doesn’t understand “why the sonar has become such a big deal.”
Even though Read Adm. Rice is charged with ensuring “environmental readiness” he apparently has never come across the concept now dominating wildlife management studies, a little thing called “cumulative impact.”
Of course, no one really expects the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines to express genuine concern for the whales. But only die-hard deep ecologists would argue that environmental concerns, whether the topic is marine mammals or climate change, should always be given priority over national security. It would be nice if conflicts could be kept to a minimum, but in the real world the lives of Homo sapiens (and their economic institutions) get top billing. And that’s not going to change.
Still, in a time when national security can trump just about every other political priority (how many Constitutional amendments haven’t been declared null and void thanks to the USA PATRIOT Act?), we should be extremely skeptical of each request for an exemption from environmental protection. It’s just too tempting for military planners to take advantage of the current climate, and too easy for intellectually lazy judges to grant soldiers and sailors their wishes.
Remember also that the twin threats of climate change and peak oil mean that society’s various stakeholders will soon be fighting over access and burning privileges to fossil fuels. Does anyone seriously believe that armies and navies won’t be the last to surrender those privileges?
What the courts say today on the U.S. Navy’s right to ignore laws that apply to everyone else could have profound implications in a rapidly changing climate.