Government overrules biologists to allow offshore drilling

May 14, 2010 • 5:44 am

I suppose we all thought that the Obama administration would be better then the Bush administration at protecting the environment.  So I was depressed when Obama announced opened up a lot more areas to offshore drilling, which seemed like a dangerous sop to Republicans and to industry.

But it’s even worse than that.  As reported in today’s New York Times, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), an agency of the U.S. government that issues permits for companies to drill offshore oil wells, has regularly ignored the warnings of biologists about the possible impact of drilling on endangered species. What’s more, the MMS violated federal regulations by not making oil companies get required environmental-impact permits from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency that is responsible for protecting marine life.  The latest disaster also involved a well drilled without those permits:

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 day.

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.

The concerns of government scientists were brushed aside:

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 for you.”

And, just as in the bad old days, the Minerals Management Service is stonewalling:

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.

Heads should roll at the MMS. And, at the least, Obama should address the country on how the BP disaster will affect the future of offshore drilling and his plan to make great swaths of our coasts vulnerable to spills.  As far as I know, he hasn’t said anything about this issue.

UPDATE:  Obama has spoken out, harshly criticizing BP and the drill-rig owners for their internecine finger pointing, and promising to fix the broken permit process:

Reacting to reports that federal regulators allowed extensive offshore drilling without first demanding the required environmental permits, the White House and the Interior Department said on Friday that there would be a review of all actions taken by the Minerals Management Service, the agency responsible for offshore rigs, under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

Now let’s see if he closes off the coastal areas that he opened for drilling two months ago.

8 thoughts on “Government overrules biologists to allow offshore drilling

  1. “Minerals Management Service (MMS) [gave] BP’s lease at Deepwater Horizon a “categorical exclusion” from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on April 6, 2009…

    I wonder if the following fact has anything to do with that:

    “BP and its employees have given more than $3.5 million to federal candidates over the past 20 years, with the largest chunk of their money going to Obama, according to the Center for Responsive Politics… During his time in the Senate and while running for president, Obama received a total of $77,051 from the oil giant and is the top recipient of BP PAC and individual money over the past 20 years, according to financial disclosure records.”

    The preceding two excerpts are from:
    http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0510/36783.html
    and
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/04/AR2010050404118.html

  2. Heads should roll at the MMS. …

    This is all shameful and saddening and I agree with your concluding paragraph.

  3. Don dinero habla. It’s the same here in Oz. The major parties are funded by the big end of town, and thus, whoever is in power always pays tribute. The people and the environment be dammed.

  4. I do wonder though, how much is Obama’s administration to blame? Did they knowingly or unknowingly leave a corrupt agency as they had found it? How much personnel change was there between administrations?

    1. If we know about it, the Admin knows about it. They do now, at least. If they continue to do nothing significant, they absolutely will be to blame.

  5. For many reasons I’m not so concerned about the environment as about the breaking of the system. As usual conspiracy theories are the most unlikely explanation for anything (re having specifically Obama or his administration somehow corrupted), while corruption is common.

    So how do you say over there, “a well oiled hand of man is an oil well handyman”?

    1. What’s up with that NYT article? All it talks about is Obama and his relationship with the business community, or some such babble.
      I don’t think any of that should matter when making these decisions. These oil leaks are bad for one reason: the environment. Could we please save the political bollocks for when we aren’t pouring hundreds of barrels of oil into the sea every second?

      1. I don’t entirely agree with this argument, it is after all politics that control energy resources and the extent of corruption. However I think it is, as well as protests that politics doesn’t come into it can be, used a red herring fallacy to divert interest from corruption. Corruption has created and sustained the Mexico war (as I remember it, more than ~ 1000 dead/year, so a war) and the Greece economical crisis. The less extensive corruption may well be harmless for society, but I would like to see that tested first.

        Yes, continuing oil leaks changes the environment. But oil fields is something that we have to live with until this resource is a dwindling market, as it is such an effective resource. That is good for the current environment too, since the coal & gas alternatives are more wasteful.

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