An attempt to protect the endangered right whale from being killed by commercial ships has languished for more than a year in part because Vice President Dick Cheney's office and White House economists questioned the conclusions of marine scientists, according to internal documents.
The documents were released Wednesday by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who questioned why White House officials had raised "baseless objections" to findings by government scientists who for years had been studying the dangers posed to the whale by commercial shipping.
"The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most critical endangered species on Earth," Waxman wrote the White House Office of Management and Budget, demanding to know why the final regulation to increase protection for the whale from commercial vessels was being held up.
Only about 300 to 350 of the whales, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act, remain in Atlantic waters off the eastern seaboard. At least 19 of the whales have been confirmed killed since 1986 and marine conservationists believe other fatal collisions likely were never reported.
"We cannot comment at this time on an ongoing rulemaking process," OMB spokeswoman Jane Lee said. "However, we are confident this long-standing rulemaking process will provide an approach that will achieve our shared goals."
The federal Marine Fisheries Service, which enforces the Endangered Species Act for marine species, sent a final regulation to OMB for review in February 2007 that would require commercial ships to slow their speed to 10 knots in areas where the whale is known to inhabit.
But for more than a year, the OMB has held up final approval of the regulation first initiated four years ago.
Internal administration documents "indicate that the delay in protecting the right whale appears to be due to objections raised by White House officials, including officials in the office of the vice president," Waxman wrote Wednesday to Susan Dudley, head of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration memos, responding to the White House objections, were obtained by a conservation group and provided to Waxman's House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
In one instance, officials at the White House Council of Economic Advisers, questioned "the reliability" of the scientists' analysis of the relationship of ship speed and injury to whales, saying "it may not be as strong as a relationship as is suggested in published papers."
NOAA, the fisheries agency's parent, responded that the White House was using "biased" analysis and said in a memo: "The basic facts remain that there is a direct relationship between speed and death/serious injury" to the whales.
Another document showed an intense interest in the matter of ship speed and whale fatalities by Cheney's office.
According to a NOAA response, the vice president's staff "contends that we have no evidence (i.e. hard data) that lowering the speeds of large ships will actually make a difference."
NOAA also rejected these views and said "there's no basis to overturn our previous conclusions that imposing a speed limit on large vessels would be beneficial to whales."
Waxman cited a third document in which the White House suggested NOAA consider unpublished information related the birth rate of right whales. The agency responded that it had used "the latest, peer reviewed, scientific data."
The revelations surrounding the right whale regulation come amid criticism from members of Congress and conservation groups of alleged White House interference in the work of government scientists involved in a wide range of areas from regulating toxic chemicals to climate change and protecting endangered species.
"I question why White House economic advisers are apparently conducting their own research on right whales and why the vice president's staff is challenging the conclusions of the government's scientific experts," Waxman wrote.