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Years In The Making, Plan To Expand A Gulf Marine Sanctuary Faces An Uncertain Future

Efforts to further protect sensitive coral reefs could be halted amid President Trump’s push to expand offshore oil and gas drilling.

Brown Chromis seen at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary


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Off the coast of Galveston are some of the world's most unique coral reefs. They're so special that for more than a decade, scientists and conservationists have been working alongside the fishing and energy industries to further protect them.

But now, with the Trump Administration's push to expand offshore oil and gas drilling, there's a chance that effort could be halted altogether.

The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is home to living coral reefs and "salt domes" – basically underwater mountains – that are key habitat for fish, manta rays, sea turtles and other animals. By all accounts, it's a special place.

"People have a hard time imagining this," said George "G.P." Schmahl, the sanctuary's superintendent.

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"You go to the coastline in Texas off of Galveston and you see the water, and it's kind of brown and murky, but as you go offshore, even ten miles, twenty miles, the water starts to become very clear," he said. "By the time you're 100 miles offshore, where the Flower Garden banks are, it's Caribbean blue."

Schmahl and his staff have been pushing for years to expand the sanctuary's boundary, to protect more of this sensitive ecosystem. It's been a typically slow bureaucratic process with lots of meetings.

The sanctuary has an advisory council made up of stakeholders in the fishing industry, conservationists, oil and gas companies and others. They've spent years negotiating a plan that balances the diversity of interests in the area, which do include commercial interests.

"Salt domes are the most likely places for oil and gas to be discovered in the Gulf, so the banks are prime exploration targets," explained Clint Moore, a Houston oil company executive and chair of the advisory council.

"Technology has changed in just the last ten years to allow subsurface imaging of the flanks of these banks more clearly, and industry sees drilling deep around these banks as a top priority for the next decade," he said.

That's perhaps why last year, President Trump – a strong fossil fuels ally – issued an executive order that could throw a wrench into growing the protected area.

The order instructed the U.S. commerce secretary to refrain from expanding marine sanctuaries, unless plans for that include a "timely, full accounting" of the energy resources that would be impacted. The process hasn't gotten that far yet: the council still has to formally recommend how much the sanctuary should expand, then it goes up the chain of command and the commerce secretary makes the call.

Still, the president's order worried Joanie Steinhaus, an ocean conservationist working on the expansion.

"I'm very concerned that we aren't taking care of our natural sanctuaries," she said. "They're important, we're continuing to learn, and we should be expanding them."

Steinhaus is pushing for the broadcast possible new protections for the sanctuary, but she said the administration's pro-energy politics are putting pressure on the council to recommend more modest changes.

"Just because we believe that the administration won't approve it, doesn't mean we shouldn't look at it, we shouldn't identify all the important habitats, all the species that could be potentially impacted, all the deep coral formations," she said.

Moore, the oil and gas representative on the council, doesn't think the Trump Administration will reject the expansion. He said his industry does want more of this underwater haven protected. He's a fan of the sanctuary himself, he noted, having been scuba diving there many times. By his telling, the economic impact of the expansion wasn't considered thoroughly enough in the past, and the president's order was an attempt to fix that.

"I'm very confident that we will find that consensus and recommend an expansion that everybody can support, all users, all stakeholders," he said.

That recommendation is expected sometime in May.

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