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Gulf Disaster
The Washington Post, May 5, 2010

U.S. exempted BP's Gulf of Mexico drilling from environmental impact study
By Juliet Eilperin

The Interior Department exempted BP's calamitous Gulf of Mexico drilling operation from a detailed environmental impact analysis last year, according to government documents, after three reviews of the area concluded that a massive oil spill was unlikely.

The decision by the department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) to give BP's lease at Deepwater Horizon a "categorical exclusion" from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on April 6, 2009 -- and BP's lobbying efforts just 11 days before the explosion to expand those exemptions -- show that neither federal regulators nor the company anticipated an accident of the scale of the one unfolding in the gulf.

Rethinking the rules

Now, environmentalists and some key senators are calling for a reassessment of safety requirements for offshore drilling.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who has supported offshore oil drilling in the past, said, "I suspect you're going to see an entirely different regime once people have a chance to sit back and take a look at how do we anticipate and clean up these potential environmental consequences" from drilling.

BP spokesman Toby Odone said the company's appeal for NEPA waivers in the past "was based on the spill and incident-response history in the Gulf of Mexico." Once the various investigations of the new spill have been completed, he added, "the causes of this incident can be applied to determine any changes in the regulatory regime that are required to protect the environment."

"I'm of the opinion that boosterism breeds complacency and complacency breeds disaster," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) on Tuesday. "That, in my opinion, is what happened."

Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said it is important to learn the cause of the accident before pursuing a major policy change. "While the conversation has shifted, the energy reality has not," Gerard said. "The American economy still relies on oil and gas."

While the MMS assessed the environmental impact of drilling in the central and western Gulf of Mexico on three occasions in 2007 -- including a specific evaluation of BP's Lease 206 at Deepwater Horizon -- in each case it played down the prospect of a major blowout.

In one assessment, the agency estimated that "a large oil spill" from a platform would not exceed a total of 1,500 barrels and that a "deepwater spill," occurring "offshore of the inner Continental shelf," would not reach the coast. In another assessment, it defined the most likely large spill as totaling 4,600 barrels and forecast that it would largely dissipate within 10 days and would be unlikely to make landfall.

"They never did an analysis that took into account what turns out to be the very real possibility of a serious spill," said Holly Doremus, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley who has reviewed the documents.

The MMS mandates that companies drilling in some areas identify under NEPA what could reduce a project's environmental impact. But Interior Department spokesman Matt Lee-Ashley said the service grants between 250 and 400 waivers a year for Gulf of Mexico projects. He added that Interior has now established the "first ever" board to examine safety procedures for offshore drilling. It will report back within 30 days on BP's oil spill and will conduct "a broader review of safety issues," Lee-Ashley said.

BP's exploration plan for Lease 206, which calls the prospect of an oil spill "unlikely," stated that "no mitigation measures other than those required by regulation and BP policy will be employed to avoid, diminish or eliminate potential impacts on environmental resources."

While the plan included a 13-page environmental impact analysis, it minimized the prospect of any serious damage associated with a spill, saying there would be only "sub-lethal" effects on fish and marine mammals, and "birds could become oiled. However it is unlikely that an accidental oil spill would occur from the proposed activities."

Kierán Suckling, executive director of the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, said the federal waiver "put BP entirely in control" of the way it conducted its drilling.

Agency a 'rubber stamp'

"The agency's oversight role has devolved to little more than rubber-stamping British Petroleum's self-serving drilling plans," Suckling said.

BP has lobbied the White House Council on Environmental Quality -- which provides NEPA guidance for all federal agencies-- to provide categorical exemptions more often. In an April 9 letter, BP America's senior federal affairs director, Margaret D. Laney, wrote to the council that such exemptions should be used in situations where environmental damage is likely to be "minimal or non-existent." An expansion in these waivers would help "avoid unnecessary paperwork and time delays," she added.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were talking Tuesday about curtailing offshore oil exploration rather than making it easier. In addition to traditional foes of offshore drilling such as Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.), Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and centrists such as Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said they are taking a second look at such methods.

"It's time to push the pause button," Baucus told reporters.

Staff writer Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton