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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Lack of Oversight on Drilling Safety

Air Date: Week of

At a press conference in Louisiana, Department of Interior secretary Ken Salazar pledges to review offshore oil drilling safety. (Courtesy of Minerals Management Service)

The Deepwater Horizons Drilling operation was not required to perform an environmental review, which some critics say should be required. Jeff Ruch of PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, tells host Jeff Young that the Minerals Management Service (MMS) routinely passes oil drilling operations without environmental assessment. We also hear from Marc Gaffigan of the Government Accountability Office who says a government report shows that MMS employees lack official guidance for environmental protocol.


YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts—this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. The race is on in the Gulf of Mexico to limit damage from a massive oil gusher.

And the heat is on in Washington where Congress is looking for answers as to what went wrong. We have reports on both; we begin in Washington. Just a month before the BP rig exploded Congress’ own investigative office sounded the alarm about systemic weaknesses in the regulation of offshore drilling.

And federal officials responsible for enforcing the law in public waters exempted the BP rig from a full environmental impact analysis. Jeff Ruch directs the nonprofit watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER. Ruch says the Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service, or MMS, gave that BP rig a pass.

RUCH: MMS has taken the posture on this rig and rigs elsewhere offshore that the risk of spill and the consequences of spills are minimal and not to be a matter of concern. With respect to this rig, they found that there was no need to even do an environmental review because the risks of damage from the spill were so minimal.

YOUNG: What do we know about decisions being made on whether or not to drill in other potentially sensitive areas, say, the newly opened lease areas in the waters off Alaska?

RUCH: Well, the Government Accountability Office issued a report last month that took MMS to task for suppressing an array of critical findings on issues like liquid oil spills, acoustical damage to whales.

And they found things like the scientists at MMS are under pressure to turn out reviews that omit important environmental concerns and conditions were so oppressive that in the five years that they looked at, in some years as many as 50 percent of the analysts left the Alaska office.

YOUNG: That GAO report Ruch cites also sheds light on larger problems with how the Minerals Management Service makes offshore drilling decisions. Mark Gaffigan wrote the report. He’s GAO’s Director for Natural Resources and the Environment.

GAFFIGAN: What we found is that there seemed to be a lack of a good policy framework for how they do that analysis. In Department of Interior, for example, calls for a guidebook on how to do these things, and MMS did not have one.

YOUNG: So, in the case of the deepwater horizon drill the officials there decided not to require this environmental review, but what guidance did they have to make that decision?

At a press conference in Louisiana, Department of Interior secretary Ken Salazar pledges to review offshore oil drilling safety. (Courtesy of Minerals Management Service)

GAFFIGAN: Well, we felt without the handbook that they didn’t have good criteria for making that decision. And what they missed out on was a much more detailed environmental impact statement, which would provide a lot more multiple opportunities for public comment and require plans for mitigating the potential impact—looking at the assessment of could this adversely affect fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico and could it affect the general water quality, damage the ecosystem? All those sorts of considerations need to be weighed when considering oil and gas development.

YOUNG: That certainly seems like a big deal now.

GAFFIGAN: It sure does.

YOUNG: So, there’s a lot of focus obviously now on what went wrong in the Gulf, and how to change policy to improve things. What would be your recommendations?

GAFFIGAN: What needs to be recognized is that oil and gas development in the United States has a long history. And we have drilled more wells than any other place in the world. And what’s quickly forgotten is that the U.S. is still the third largest producer of oil in the world behind Russia and Saudi Arabia because we are so well developed and we have explored in a lot of areas, we’re starting reach out to the harder areas.

And the degree of difficulty in producing oil in deep waters increases, and there’s some increased risk. And those considerations need to be carefully looked at when we’re thinking about going further and further out, trying to get this oil that’s difficult to obtain.

GAFFIGAN: That’s Mark Gaffigan of the Government Accountability Office. In a March letter, Minerals Management agreed with many of Gaffigan’s recommendations. But it’s not clear if any changes have been made. Jeff Ruch of the watchdog group PEER says the agency’s entire culture needs to change.

Under the Bush administration, the Interior’s number two official went to prison on corruption charges, and an internal investigation found some minerals management staff doing drugs and sleeping with oil company employees. The Obama administration pledged to end corruption. But Ruch points out that it was on Obama’s watch that BP’s drilling plan got its final approval. Ruch says the agency’s problems are chronic. Even its dual mission is a challenge—it both polices and promotes offshore drilling.

RUCH: Their primary role is to collect the government cut, the royalties, and they’re also supposed to make sure that the operations are done according to law. And the principle laws involve protecting the environment from many effects, principally, oil spills.

YOUNG: Is there a conflict there?

RUCH: There is a conflict, but for almost its entire history it’s always been resolved in favor of promotion. MMS has never been known as an alert cop on the beat.

YOUNG: President Obama’s Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, when he was selected he told the public and members of Congress that cleaning up Interior, and in specific, this office, Minerals Management Service—this was one of his top priorities.

RUCH: President Obama promised a policy a year ago to protect scientists and government science from political manipulation, those rules were supposed to have been in place in July and they’re unaccounted for; we don’t know where they are. The Interior department itself has no scientific code of conduct. In terms of scientific integrity, protection of whistleblowers, Secretary Salazar’s been completely missing in action.

YOUNG: Jeff Ruch of PEER. The Interior Department did not respond to our requests for comment. The real test of whether the department has made changes may come in Alaska’s waters—a spot where the GAO found many shortcomings. Shell Oil plans exploration drilling there as soon as July 1st.The big spill has also churned up the politics of oil and climate on Capitol Hill, as Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports.



Minerals Management Service

Government Accountability Office

PEER article on Alaska GAO report

Click here to hear a longer interview with Jeff Ruch


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