The Minerals Management Service (MMS) has oversight responsibility for leasing, exploration, and development of submerged Federal lands on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). Pursuant to the OCS Land Act, as amended, the MMS Environmental Studies Program was initiated in 1973 to evaluate the environmental effects of oil and gas activities on the OCS. This paper is designed to present some of the environmental issues in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM). Emphasis is placed on several sensitive and important biological and habitat resources of special concern.
These include topographic features of the Western GOM, pinnacle trend of the Eastern Gulf, deepwater chemosynthetic communities, protected species, and coastal wetlands and barrier islands. Each resource is briefly described and the reasons for concern given, whether for legal and/or specific environmental considerations. These may include various mandates (e.g., the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act); high productivity, diversity, or biomass; aesthetics; refuge for important species (e.g., fisheries species); rarity or distribution; and vulnerability. Each resource is discussed with respect to past and present research activity, status of knowledge, types of petroleum activity deemed potentially harmful, and special governmental regulatory action required.
Special emphasis is placed on protection of deepwater chemo-synthetic communities. As oil and gas development has proceeded into deepwater environments, the potential of disturbing these fragile forms due to man's activities has increased. Research, largely funded by the MMS, has revealed dozens of sites having chemosynthetic animals that are well-established, high-density communities worthy of protection. In addition to their function as highly productive islands of life supporting a wide variety of life, they provide excellent natural scientific laboratories. Subsequent information on Gulf chemosynthetic communities led the MMS to require that industry protect them from the physical effects of exploration and production.