Feds Have Given 27 Waivers for Gulf Drilling Since the BP Spill

You would think that after an environmental catastrophe on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the federal agency in charge of reviewing plans for new wells would put everything on hold while it figured out what happened, how to better prevent it, and what to do if another "oil volcano" disaster occurred.

You would be wrong.

From a Friday, May 7 press release from the Center for Biological Diversity:

Even as the BP drilling explosion which killed eleven people continues to gush hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) has continued to exempt dangerous new drilling operations from environmental review. Twenty-seven new offshore drilling projects have been approved since April 20, 2010; twenty-six under the same environmental review exemption used to approve the disastrous BP drilling that is fouling the Gulf and its wildlife. [...]

“Salazar is playing a cynical shell game, making the public think he stopped issuing the faulty approvals that allowed the disastrous BP drilling to occur, when in fact he has given MMS the green light to keep issuing those very same approvals,” said [CBD executive director Kieran Suckling]. “The only thing Salazar has stopped is the final, technical check off which comes long after the environmental review. His media sleight of hand does nothing to fix the broken system that allowed what may be the greatest environmental catastrophe of our generation to occur.”

“For Secretary Salazar to allow MMS to exempt 26 new oil wells from environmental review in the midst of the ongoing Gulf crisis shows an extraordinary lapse of judgment. It is inconceivable that his attention is apparently on providing BP with new environmentally exempted offshore oil wells instead of shutting down the corrupt process which put billion of dollars into BP’s pocket and millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.”

The release provides side-by-side comparisons of the doomed Deepwater Horizon Mississippi Canyon exploration plan and a Green Canyon plan approved on May 6. Unbelievably, some MMS functionary actually signed off on a plan with the following: "II.J. Blowout Scenario - Information not required for activities proposed in this Initial Exploration Plan."

It occurred to me that maybe an "Initial Exploration Plan" is just about underwater geological surveying -- I don't know, a little robot sub or probe gives the seabed a whack with a piledriver and records the seismic echoes or something. But no, the MMS-approved Green Canyon plan has sections like "Drilling Fluids" and "Oil Spill Response Discussion" -- and for the latter, laconically notes "Information not required for activities proposed in this Initial Exploration Plan." Just before that (p. 7), the exploration plan (again, approved late last week) asserts:

Since BP has the capability to respond to the worst-case spill scenario included in its regional Oil Spill Response Plan approved on July 21, 2009, and since the worst-case scenario determined for their EP does not replace the worst-case scenario in their regional OSRP, BP Exploration & Production Inc. hereby certifies that they have the capability to respond, to the maximum extent practicable, to a worst-case discharge, or a substantial threat of such a discharge, resulting from the activities proposed in their EP.

McClatchy Newspapers' Marisa Taylor got the MMS side of the story, such as it is:

The exemptions, known as “categorical exclusions,” were granted by the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) and included waiving detailed environmental studies for a BP exploration plan to be conducted at a depth of more than 4,000 feet and an Anadarko Petroleum Corp. exploration plan at more 9,000 feet.

“Is there a moratorium on off shore drilling or not?” asked Peter Galvin, conservation director with the Center for Biological Diversity, the environmental group that discovered the administration’s continued approval of the exemptions. “Possibly the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history has occurred and nothing appears to have changed.”

MMS officials said the exemptions are continuing to be issued because they do not represent final drilling approval.

They do appear to represent business as usual. In an article for The New Republic ("The Crisis Comes Ashore"), Al Gore echoes Galvin:

Even as the oil spill continues to grow—even as BP warns that the flow could increase multi-fold, to 60,000 barrels per day, and that it may continue for months—the head of the American Petroleum Institute, Jack Gerard, says, "Nothing has changed. When we get back to the politics of energy, oil and natural gas are essential to the economy and our way of life." His reaction reminds me of the day Elvis Presley died. Upon hearing the tragic news, Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, said, “This changes nothing.”

It certainly doesn't seem to have changed anything for the MMS, Ken Salazar, or -- assuming the buck actually stops with him -- Barack Obama.

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