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US Is Toughening Scrutiny Of Deepwater Drilling

Petroleum IndustryBP PlcEnvironmental PollutionNatural ResourcesUpstream Oil and Gas ActivitiesEnergy Resources

The government said Monday it is tougheningenvironmental reviews for all new deepwater oil drilling, ending aneasy path to oil riches that allowed BP to drill its blown-out wellin the Gulf of Mexico with little federal scrutiny.

The step is meant to help redress a history of lax oversightleading up to the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers and ledto the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Some 206 million gallonsspilled into the Gulf before BP stopped the leak at the Macondowell.

A report by the White House Council on Environmental Qualityfound that decades-old data provided the basis for exempting BP'sdrilling permits from any extensive environmental review.

Now the Interior Department is banning such "categoricalexclusions" for deepwater drilling reviews, at least until itinvestigates how the exemptions are granted.

"Our decision-making must be fully informed by an understandingof the potential environmental consequences of federal actionspermitting offshore oil and gas development," Interior Secretary

Ken Salazar said in a statement.

For now, new deepwater drilling is under a temporary moratoriumin the Gulf. Once that's lifted, though, Interior's new policy islikely to make it much more time-consuming for oil companies tomove forward with new deepwater projects, since environmentalassessments will be required along the way.

Such assessments typically include a discussion of the need forthe project and a look at its environmental impacts, mitigation andpossible alternatives, among other things. They are a step short ofa full-blown "environmental impact statement" that would includea more in-depth study of environmental impacts and allow more timefor public comment. An environmental assessment can determinewhether an environmental impact statement is needed.

Shallow-water drilling will also be subjected to stricterenvironmental scrutiny under the new policy.

BP's ability to get environmental exemptions from the MineralsManagement Service led to some of the harshest criticism of thenow-defunct agency.

The report by the Council on Environmental Quality sheds newlight on the granting of those categorical exclusions. The reportsays that the exclusions BP operated under were written in 1981 and1986. That was long before the boom in deepwater drilling that waspropelled by the development of dramatic new technologies forreaching deep into the sea floor.

The report also finds other problems with how the MineralsManagement Service applied environmental laws in reviewing the BPproject. It notes, for example, that in assessing the likelihood ofa major spill, MMS did not consider the example of the disastrous1979 Ixtoc spill in the Gulf - simply because the spill was not inU.S. waters.

MMS' successor agency, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management,Enforcement and Regulation, is agreeing to the report'srecommendations to try to improve gas and oil drilling oversight,including pushing for more time to review exploration plans, andperforming more comprehensive site-specific environmental reviews.

The American Petroleum Institute said Interior's new rules onenvironmental reviews could create unnecessary delays without addedenvironmental protection.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House NaturalResources Committee, applauded the steps announced by Salazar whilecalling for more far-reaching reform. The Center for BiologicalDiversity welcomed the announcement but found it lacking, sayingthat ongoing projects that might have been approved under faultyprocesses would not necessarily be subject to additional scrutiny.

The announcement came as the fall shrimping season opened Mondayin Louisiana's coastal waters, a step toward normalcy for coastaltowns that have seen their vital fisheries closed for four months.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, leading the government'soil-spill response, said it will take at least a week topermanently plug the well with mud and cement once he gives thego-ahead for the "bottom kill." He said he is not sure when thatwill happen, because scientists are working on ways to perform thekill without further damaging the well.

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