Sent: Friday, May 14, 2010 11:18 AM
Subject: terrific story about the oil spill
This story from today's New York Times sheds important light on the current
catastrophe, but it's also a general lesson in what happens to government
attempts to regulate big corporations.
U.S. Said to Allow Drilling Without Needed Permits
By IAN URBINA
Published: May 13, 2010
WASHINGTON — The federal Minerals Management Service gave permission to BP
and dozens of other oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without
first getting required permits from another agency that assesses threats to
endangered species — and despite strong warnings from that agency about the
impact the drilling was likely to have on the gulf.
Those approvals, federal records show, include one for the well drilled by
the Deepwater Horizon rig, which exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers
and resulting in thousands of barrels of oil spilling into the gulf each
The Minerals Management Service, or M.M.S., also routinely overruled its
staff biologists and engineers who raised concerns about the safety and the
environmental impact of certain drilling proposals in the gulf and in
Alaska, according to a half-dozen current and former agency scientists.
Those scientists said they were also regularly pressured by agency officials
to change the findings of their internal studies if they predicted that an
accident was likely to occur or if wildlife might be harmed.
Under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the
Minerals Management Service is required to get permits to allow drilling
where it might harm endangered species or marine mammals.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is partly
responsible for protecting endangered species and marine mammals. It has
said on repeated occasions that drilling in the gulf affects these animals,
but the minerals agency since January 2009 has approved at least three huge
lease sales, 103 seismic blasting projects and 346 drilling plans. Agency
records also show that permission for those projects and plans was granted
without getting the permits required under federal law.
"M.M.S. has given up any pretense of regulating the offshore oil industry,"
said Kierán Suckling, director of theCenter for Biological Diversity, an
environmental advocacy group in Tucson, which filed notice of intent to sue
the agency over its noncompliance with federal law concerning endangered
species. "The agency seems to think its mission is to help the oil industry
evade environmental laws."
Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for the Minerals Management Service, said her
agency had full consultations with NOAA about endangered species in the
gulf. But she declined to respond to additional questions about whether her
agency had obtained the relevant permits.
Federal records indicate that these consultations ended with NOAA
instructing the minerals agency that continued drilling in the gulf was
harming endangered marine mammals and that the agency needed to get permits
to be in compliance with federal law.
Responding to the accusations that agency scientists were being silenced,
Ms. Barkoff added, "Under the previous administration, there was a pattern
of suppressing science in decisions, and we are working very hard to change
the culture and empower scientists in the Department of the Interior."
On Tuesday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced plans to reorganize the
minerals agency to improve its regulatory role by separating safety
oversight from the division that collects royalties from oil and gas
companies. But that reorganization is not likely to have any bearing on how
and whether the agency seeks required permits from other agencies like NOAA.
Criticism of the minerals agency has grown in recent days as more
information has emerged about how it handled drilling in the gulf.
In a letter from September 2009, obtained by The New York Times, NOAA
accused the minerals agency of a pattern of understating the likelihood and
potential consequences of a major spill in the gulf and understating the
frequency of spills that have already occurred there.
The letter accuses the agency of highlighting the safety of offshore oil
drilling operations while overlooking more recent evidence to the contrary.
The data used by the agency to justify its approval of drilling operations
in the gulf play down the fact that spills have been increasing and
understate the "risks and impacts of accidental spills," the letter states.
NOAA declined several requests for comment.
The accusation that the minerals agency has ignored risks is also being
levied by scientists working for the agency.
Managers at the agency have routinely overruled staff scientists whose
findings highlight the environmental risks of drilling, according to a
half-dozen current or former agency scientists.
The scientists, none of whom wanted to be quoted by name for fear of
reprisals by the agency or by those in the industry, said they had
repeatedly had their scientific findings changed to indicate no
environmental impact or had their calculations of spill risks downgraded.
"You simply are not allowed to conclude that the drilling will have an
impact," said one scientist who has worked for the minerals agency for more
than a decade. "If you find the risks of a spill are high or you conclude
that a certain species will be affected, your report gets disappeared in a
desk drawer and they find another scientist to redo it or they rewrite it
Another biologist who left the agency in 2005 after more than five years
said that agency officials went out of their way to accommodate the oil and
He said, for example, that seismic activity from drilling can have a
devastating effect on mammals and fish, but that agency officials rarely
enforced the regulations meant to limit those effects.
He also said the agency routinely ceded to the drilling companies the
responsibility for monitoring species that live or spawn near the drilling
"What I observed was M.M.S. was trying to undermine the monitoring and
mitigation requirements that would be imposed on the industry," he said.
Aside from allowing BP and other companies to drill in the gulf without
getting the required permits from NOAA, the minerals agency has also given
BP and other drilling companies in the gulf blanket exemptions from having
to provide environmental impact statements.
Much as BP's drilling plan asserted that there was no chance of an oil
spill, the company also claimed in federal documents that its drilling would
not have any adverse effect on endangered species.
The gulf is known for its biodiversity. Various endangered species are found
in the area where the Deepwater Horizon was drilling, including sperm
whales, blue whales and fin whales.
In some instances, the minerals agency has indeed sought and received
permits in the gulf to harm certain endangered species like green and
loggerhead sea turtles. But the agency has not received these permits for
endangered species like the sperm and humpback whales, which are more common
in the areas where drilling occurs and thus are more likely to be affected.
Tensions between scientists and managers at the agency erupted in one case
last year involving a rig in the gulf called the BP Atlantis. An agency
scientist complained to his bosses of catastrophic safety and environmental
violations. The scientist said these complaints were ignored, so he took his
concerns to higher officials at the Interior Department.
"The purpose of this letter is to restate in writing our concern that the BP
Atlantis project presently poses a threat of serious, immediate, potentially
irreparable and catastrophic harm to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and
its marine environment, and to summarize how BP's conduct has violated
federal law and regulations," Kenneth Abbott, the agency scientist, wrote in
a letter to officials at the Interior Department that was dated May 27.
The letter added: "From our conversation on the phone, we understand that
M.M.S. is already aware that undersea manifolds have been leaking and that
major flow lines must already be replaced. Failure of this critical undersea
equipment has potentially catastrophic environmental consequences."
Almost two months before the Deepwater Horizon exploded, Representative Raúl
M. Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona, sent a letter to the agency raising
concerns about the BP Atlantis and questioning its oversight of the rig.
After the disaster, Mr. Salazar said he would delay granting any new oil
But the minerals agency has issued at least five final approval permits to
new drilling projects in the gulf since last week, records show.
Despite being shown records indicating otherwise, Ms. Barkoff said her
agency had granted no new permits since Mr. Salazar made his announcement.
Other agencies besides NOAA have begun criticizing the minerals agency.
At a public hearing in Louisiana this week, a joint panel of Coast Guard and
Minerals Management Service officials investigating the explosion grilled
minerals agency officials for allowing the offshore drilling industry to be
essentially "self-certified," as Capt. Hung Nguyen of the Coast Guard, a
co-chairman of the investigation, put it.
In addition to the minerals agency and the Coast Guard, the Deepwater
Horizon was overseen by the Marshall Islands, the "flag of convenience"
under which it was registered.
No one from the Marshall Islands ever inspected the rig. The nongovernmental
organizations that did were paid by the rig's operator, in this case
Campbell Robertson contributed reporting from New Orleans, and Andy Lehren
from New York.
A version of this article appeared in print on May 14, 2010, on page A1