One of the planet's most unique coral reef systems happens to be nestled in one of the world's most active oil and gas production areas. And for a decade, federal agencies and outside experts have studied how to better protect this fragile marvel, the only national marine sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico.
Now, President Donald Trump's executive order to unleash offshore drilling threatens to derail their solution: an expansion of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, from 56 square miles to as much as 935 square miles.
The sanctuary, home to more than 180 species, is blanketed with a forest of corals, where schools of young grouper, snapper and other fish find protection from predators. The area is considered "essential fish habitat," vital for ensuring the survival of highly sought reef fish, which make up a significant part of the commercial and recreational catch in the Gulf.
The sanctuary expansion was proposed by the Obama administration last year and was to be finalized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in early 2018. It drew on 30 years of scientific research, public meetings and comments, as well as the recommendations of task forces convened after BP's 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.
While Flower Garden Banks did not suffer direct impacts from the worst oil spill in U.S. history 400 miles to the east, the oil and chemical dispersants ravaged surrounding reefs and banks. Some of those areas would become part of the preserve, if the proposal's most extensive option is approved. The coral reefs are also under stress from climate change: Flower Garden Banks suffered the worst bleaching in its known history last year.
"They're getting beat up on both ends," said Jaclyn Lopez, a staff attorney with the conversation group Center for Biological Diversity. "And we don't know the tipping point."
Trump's April 28 "America-First Offshore Energy" order halts expansion of any national marine sanctuary until the government conducts a study of its energy potential, a move consistent with the president's no-holds-barred fossil fuel development agenda. The provision appears to target Flower Garden Banks—the only sanctuary in a drilling zone with a planned expansion.
The oil industry has strongly opposed expansion of Flower Garden Banks to include more reefs and banks, which it insists are not as unique as the coral system in the current sanctuary. The industry has also said that NOAA underestimates the amount of fossil fuel buried beneath the seabed.
There is oil and natural gas under the preserve—the equivalent of 5 million barrels—according to NOAA. And some 8 million more barrels would be subject to new regulation if Flower Garden Banks were expanded to 383 square miles, the middle-range alternative favored by the agency. To put that in perspective, Gulf oil production is on track to average a record 1.8 million barrels per day this year. The United States consumes about 19 million barrels of oil a day.
NOAA, which was to release its final environmental analysis of the plan as early as this month, is awaiting guidance from the administration. "We only know what the language [of the order] says," said George Schmahl, the sanctuary superintendent. He said a straight reading of Trump's order does not mean the expansion is dead; it calls for study of resources, which already is underway.
White House officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Environmentalists see the order potentially derailing what they believe is a modest plan to limit drilling in a sliver of the Gulf. There are five active platforms in NOAA's favored expansion plan, with 11 companies holding leases to drill there. Extending the sanctuary wouldn't necessarily bar drilling but would restrict discharge of pollutants and add measures to control waste.
"From my way of thinking, oil and gas is essentially throwing a temper tantrum," said Brandt Mannchen, a Sierra Club volunteer in Houston who has been working on protection of the Flower Garden Banks since the 1970s. "They've been able to drill everywhere they want to go in the Gulf of Mexico, even in the Flower Gardens. It's like c'mon guys, how much more do you want?"
A Living Carpet of Coral at Risk
At Flower Garden Banks, the northernmost coral reef system on the U.S. continental shelf, at least 20 species of coral create an extraordinary living carpet punctuated in red, purple and green.
Divers peering through the sea fans, branching sponges, and mounds of brain coral can see shrimp, spiky sea urchins and starfish. But their attention is likely to be caught by colorful parrotfish and angelfish, as well as manta rays, sea turtles and whale sharks—the largest fish in the sea. Corals cover more than half of the Flower Garden Banks. In comparison, coral cover in the Florida Keys is just 15 percent, and in Australia's Great Barrier Reef, it's now 14 percent, down from 28 percent in the 1980s.
At this latitude, such corals should not be able to thrive. But the reefs rest on huge salt domes. As a result, the water is shallow enough to provide the sunlight the corals need. Ancient salt deposits are common throughout the Gulf and are often scouted out by the oil and gas industry as potential petroleum reservoirs.
Only recently have scientists begun to understand the connections among Flower Garden Banks and dozens of other reefs and banks the northwestern Gulf. Through water circulation, the movement of fish and geology, their health is intertwined.
Experts agree there are acute and chronic threats to that health, not only from oil and gas drilling and potential spills, but also from climate change.
Flower Garden Banks seemed to experience it all last year. In May, there was a spill of 88,200 gallons of oil from a pipeline at a Shell subsea facility about 200 miles from the sanctuary. Although the reefs suffered no direct impact, NOAA officials were concerned enough about their preparedness that they did a practice drill simulating an oil spill later that month. Soon after, and apparently unrelated, the reefs experienced an unprecedented mass die-off of corals, sponges, sea urchins, brittle stars, clams and other invertebrates. Scientists believe it was related to a major intrusion of freshwater and runoff into the Gulf in a year that saw record rainfall events in Texas and Louisiana. Then, beginning in August, the worst coral bleaching in the reefs' known history whitened portions of Flower Garden Banks, as sea surface temperatures surged over 86 degrees Fahrenheit for 85 days last summer and fall.
"It was a perfect storm of events at the same location," said Schmahl. He said that although dead areas remain, most of the corals are recovering.
"The concern is that if these events keep happening, and if they happen in consecutive years or to a greater extent, they may not be able to recover as they have in the past," Schmahl said "At least for the recent event, we appear to have dodged a bullet."
Sanctuary Status Doesn't Mean No Drilling
Federal officials have sought to accommodate the oil and gas industry in the management of Flower Gardens Banks since it was made a marine sanctuary under President George H.W. Bush in 1992. At the time, they rejected proposals for a bigger sanctuary or stricter regulations on drilling.
Drilling was never banned in the sanctuary, something environmentalists fought for. There is one natural gas rig that lies within the sanctuary, built in 1982, which ceased production in 2012 and is being decommissioned. Whether to keep it as an artificial reef is under discussion. As recently as 2000, new wells were drilled from the platform, with special protections required by NOAA.
According to NOAA, the reserves that would be within its mid-range expansion would amount to 0.25 percent of the 5.3 billion barrels of reserves in the Gulf of Mexico.
The largest expansion, at 935 square miles, would be 17 times larger than the current sanctuary and would contain the equivalent of 98.9 million barrels of oil and gas, 1.9 percent of Gulf reserves.
At least some in the oil industry dispute those figures.
"We believe that billions of barrels of oil and gas are likely trapped 3-6 miles below the seafloor on the flanks of the many salt domes that caused the seafloor banks that you are potentially including in the various alternatives for boundary expansion," John Seitz, chairman of the board of Gulfslope Energy, a small exploration company, wrote to NOAA. Other oil companies that wrote letters objecting to NOAA's plan were Shell, Fieldwood Energy, Noble Energy and W&T Offshore.
The offshore drillers argue that NOAA has overstated the risk of drilling near the sanctuary, noting that Flower Garden Banks is widely viewed as one of the world's healthier reef systems, even though it's surrounded by rigs and pipelines. "Our industry has successfully co-existed within and around the [sanctuary] since its designation... and is vested in [its] protection and health," said the American Petroleum Institute (API), the NOIA (National Ocean Industries Association), and other industry groups in a letter last August on NOAA's environmental review of the plan.
The expansion "jeopardizes multi-million-dollar business decisions that impact [Gulf of Mexico] commerce, which has implications for the nation's economic vitality," the industry groups said.
They argued that many of the reefs and banks that would be added to the sanctuary under NOAA's larger expansion alternatives are neither of "special national significance" or "unique," as required by the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.
Both the API and NOIA declined requests for comment. Both reported in their disclosure forms (API, NOIA) that they lobbied members of Congress in the first quarter of the year on the Flower Garden Banks proposed expansion.
NOAA, for its part, is in a familiar role of trying to strike a compromise.
"The fact that at the existing Flower Garden Banks, where there's intensively developed oil and gas, we have not seen a direct detrimental impact to the coral, demonstrates they can co-exist if regulated properly," said Schmahl, the sanctuary superintendent.