Friday, May 14, 2010

Beyond Permits

It certainly comes as no surprise to find that, during the Bush administration, oil companies were given carte blanche to drill in the Gulf while scientific, environmental, and safety concerns were routinely ignored. What is distressing is that this appears to have gone largely unchanged during the current administration.

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 gas industry.

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 projects.

“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 drilling permits.

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.

Heckuva job, Kenny.

Meanwhile, the full scope of this disaster is beginning to be understood even as British Petroleum continues to deny the impact, or the company's responsibility.

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