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For Immediate Release, May 26, 2010

Contact: Kierán Suckling, (520) 275-5960

Controversial Salazar "Moratorium" on Gulf Drilling Was Only Oral

Government Prof: "…so ridiculous that it defies understanding…"

Law Prof: "…moratorium does not even cover the dangerous drilling
that caused the problem in the first place…"

TUCSON, Ariz.— In response to a scandal created by Center for Biological Diversity research demonstrating that the Minerals Management Service (MMS) approved 19 new drilling plans — after the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon, all with exemptions from environmental review — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced on May 6, 2010, a moratorium on the issuance of final permits for “any new offshore drilling activity.”

Since then, the Department of the Interior, as well as President Barack Obama himself, has repeatedly changed the definition of the increasingly controversial moratorium as ongoing Center research has shown that the agency was still issuing new drilling permits. The moratorium description has become steadily narrower as the Interior Department changes it to exclude whatever drilling permits the MMS issues on any given day.

As currently defined, the moratorium is so narrow that it allows continued issuance of the exact drilling permit type that BP was operating under when the Deepwater Horizon exploded.

Daniel J. Rohlf, a law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, told The New York Times last week that he was losing confidence that Salazar was capable of instituting needed offshore drilling reforms since “(t)he moratorium does not even cover the dangerous drilling that caused the problem in the first place.”

“Under pressure from the oil industry and an agency he seems incapable of controlling, Secretary Salazar has watered down the drilling moratorium to a point where it is virtually meaningless,” said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

“He seems more interested in political damage control than ensuring the Gulf of Mexico is protected from another oil-industry explosion,” said Suckling. “Salazar’s so-called moratoriums and reforms are little more than rhetorical dispersants designed to break up and hide the political scandal threatening to wash up on his shore.”

Yesterday, Interior spokespeople revealed why the “moratorium” has changed so often and caused so much confusion: It does not exist in writing. In keeping with the lax environmental oversight he allowed to reign at MMS, Secretary Salazar never communicated his moratorium to the agency in writing.

New York University Government Professor Paul Light told NPR yesterday that an oral moratorium is “so ridiculous that it defies understanding. It could not be more important to enforce this moratorium and make absolutely clear to the oil industry what is and is not permissible. And yet you have the execution of a critical order that appears to have been basically done through the most casual way possible under federal law.”

Secretary Salazar himself became the victim of his confused, shifting-sands moratorium when he falsely told Congress that it stopped all new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Interior spokespeople told NPR that “the secretary misspoke at the hearing.”

Background

Salazar’s 5-6-10 press release announcing the moratorium says:

“In a media availability after the meeting, Secretary Salazar announced that, as a result of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill, beginning April 20 — the date of the explosion — no applications for drilling permits will go forward for any new offshore drilling activity until the Department of the Interior completes the safety review process that President Obama requested. In accordance with the President’s request, the Department will deliver its report to the President by May 28, 2010. The only exceptions to the new rule regarding permit approvals are the two relief wells that are being drilled in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.”

His 5-7-10 press release says the same thing:

“Offshore Drilling Permit Applications Halted
Secretary Salazar announced that, as a result of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill, beginning April 20 — the date of the explosion — no applications for drilling permits will go forward for any new offshore drilling activity until the Department of the Interior completes the safety review process that President Obama requested. In accordance with the President’s request, the Department will deliver its report to the President by May 28. The only exceptions to the new rule regarding permit approvals are the two relief wells that are being drilled in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.”

When confronted with the fact that MMS has issued 17 new drilling permits since April 20, Interior spokespeople inexplicably denied that the moratorium applied to “any new offshore drilling activity,” saying that it actually only applied to drilling of new wells. This allows the majority of MMS drilling permits, including the kind used by the Deepwater Horizon, to proceed unabated.

Salazar subsequently told Congress (and Carol Browner told the media) that no new wells had been drilled since April 20. Confronted with the fact that new wells have been drilled since April 20, Interior spokespeople said the secretary was mistaken and that the moratorium only applies to new permits.

While the permit moratorium at least halts a minimal number of projects, Salazar has placed no moratorium at all on the approval of drilling plans without environmental review even though the president himself declared on May 14: “It seems as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies. That cannot and will not happen anymore…We’re also closing the loophole that has allowed some oil companies to bypass some critical environmental reviews....”

MMS to this day is approving drilling plans without environmental review. Many are for ultra-deep water drilling, which is yet more dangerous than the Deepwater Horizon.


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