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Archive for Saturday, June 19, 2010

Federal approval still flowing for flawed Gulf drilling plans

June 19, 2010

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— Despite President Barack Obama’s promises of better safeguards for offshore drilling, federal regulators continue to approve plans for oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico with minimal or no environmental analysis.

The Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service has signed off on at least five new offshore drilling projects since June 2, when the agency’s acting director announced tougher safety regulations for drilling in the Gulf, a McClatchy Newspapers review of public records has discovered.

Three of the projects were approved with waivers exempting them from detailed studies of their environmental impact — the same waiver the MMS granted to BP for the ill-fated well that’s been fouling the Gulf with crude for two months.

In a May 14 speech in the Rose Garden, Obama said he was “closing the loophole that has allowed some oil companies to bypass some critical environmental reviews.”

Environmental groups, however, say the loophole is as wide as ever and that the administration is allowing oil companies to proceed with drilling plans that may be just as flawed as BP’s, which concluded that a major spill was “unlikely” and that the company was equipped to manage even the worst-case blowout.

“It’s just outrageous,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation organization. “The whole world is screaming and ... they’re just continuing to move this stuff through the system.”

The Obama administration has said it’s cracking down on the oil industry with a six-month moratorium that prevents regulators from granting new permits for offshore wells deeper than 500 feet underwater in the Gulf of Mexico. That, however, hasn’t stopped oil companies from submitting new drilling plans, which, as McClatchy reported earlier this month, routinely underestimate environmental risks and overestimate the companies’ ability to respond to a disaster.

According to MMS records, since June 2 the agency has granted environmental exemptions — known as “categorical exclusions” — to three new drilling projects. Of those, an Exxon Mobil site at a water depth of 1,000 feet and a Marathon Oil site at 775 feet are classified as deepwater; the third is a shallow-water project by Houston-based Rooster Petroleum.

Environmentalists say these approvals fly in the face of the June 2 order by acting MMS director Bob Abbey that requires oil companies to submit additional safety information in their development plans. All three drilling plans were submitted to the MMS before Abbey’s order.

The MMS also approved two other deepwater drilling plans — for a Chevron site 6,730 feet underwater and for an Exxon site at a depth of 6,943 feet — after subjecting them to environmental reviews, the records show.

When Obama’s six-month ban is lifted, experts say these projects could form the basis for new, flawed wells unless the MMS submits them to tougher oversight.

“At no point did any of the moratoriums cease the use of (categorical exclusions),” Suckling said. “They’re cueing up all these drilling projects with no environmental review, so they’re just sitting at the starting line” until the ban ends.

A spokesman for the Department of Interior said the policy on categorical exclusions “is still being studied” as part of a 30-day congressionally mandated review of U.S. drilling policy. The department issued a separate directive Friday that requires oil companies to submit information about the possibility of a blowout, which had been missing from many drilling plans, but made no mention of the waivers.

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