The tale of the Deepwater Horizon disaster is, at its core, the tale of two blowout preventers: one mechanical, one regulatory. The regulatory blowout preventer failed long before BP ever started to drill – precisely because Salazar kept in place the crooked environmental guidelines the Bush administration implemented to favor the oil industry.
MMS has fully understood the worst-case scenarios for deep-sea oil blowouts for more than a decade. In May 2000, an environmental assessment for deepwater drilling in the Gulf presciently warned that "spill responses may be complicated by the potential for very large magnitude spills (because of the high production rates associated with deepwater wells)." The report noted that the oil industry "has estimated worst-case spill volumes ranging from 5,000 to 116,000 barrels a day for 120 days," and it even anticipated the underwater plumes of oil that are currently haunting the Gulf: "Oil released subsea (e.g., subsea blowout or pipeline leak) in these deepwater environments could remain submerged for some period of time and travel away from the spill site." The report ominously concluded, "There are few practical spill-response options for dealing with submerged oil."
That same month, an MMS research document developed with deepwater drillers – including the company then known as BP Amoco – warned that such a spill could spell the end for offshore operations. The industry could "ill afford a deepwater blowout," the document cautions, adding that "no single company has the solution" to such a catastrophe. "The real test will come if a deepwater blowout occurs."
Enter the Bush administration. Rather than heeding such warnings, MMS simply assumed that a big spill couldn't happen. "There was a complete failure to even contemplate the possibility of a disaster like the one in the Gulf," says Holly Doremus, an environmental-law expert at the University of California. "In their thinking, a big spill would be something like 5,000 barrels, and the oil wouldn't even reach the shoreline." In fact, Bush's five-year plan for offshore drilling described a "large oil spill" as no more than 1,500 barrels. In April 2007, an environmental assessment covering the area where BP would drill concluded that blowouts were "low probability and low risk," even though a test funded by MMS had found that blowout preventers failed 28 percent of the time. And an environmental assessment for BP's lease block concluded that offshore spills "are not expected to damage significantly any wetlands along the Gulf Coast."
In reality, MMS had little way to assess the risk to wildlife, since a new policy instituted under Bush scrapped environmental analysis and fast-tracked permits. Declaring that oil companies themselves were "in the best position to determine the environmental effects" of drilling, the new rules pre-qualified deep-sea drillers to receive a "categorical exclusion" – an exemption from environmental review that was originally intended to prevent minor projects, like outhouses on hiking trails, from being tied up in red tape. "There's no analytical component to a cat-ex," says a former MMS scientist. "You have technicians, not scientists, that are simply checking boxes to make sure all the T's are crossed. They just cut and paste from previous approvals."
Nowhere was the absurdity of the policy more evident than in the application that BP submitted for its Deepwater Horizon well only two months after Obama took office. BP claims that a spill is "unlikely" and states that it anticipates "no adverse impacts" to endangered wildlife or fisheries. Should a spill occur, it says, "no significant adverse impacts are expected" for the region's beaches, wetlands and coastal nesting birds. The company, noting that such elements are "not required" as part of the application, contains no scenario for a potential blowout, and no site-specific plan to respond to a spill. Instead, it cites an Oil Spill Response Plan that it had prepared for the entire Gulf region. Among the sensitive species BP anticipates protecting in the semitropical Gulf? "Walruses" and other cold-water mammals, including sea otters and sea lions. The mistake appears to be the result of a sloppy cut-and-paste job from BP's drilling plans for the Arctic. Even worse: Among the "primary equipment providers" for "rapid deployment of spill response resources," BP inexplicably provides the Web address of a Japanese home-shopping network. Such glaring errors expose the 582-page response "plan" as nothing more than a paperwork exercise. "It was clear that nobody read it," says Ruch, who represents government scientists.
"This response plan is not worth the paper it is written on," said Rick Steiner, a retired professor of marine science at the University of Alaska who helped lead the scientific response to the Valdez disaster. "Incredibly, this voluminous document never once discusses how to stop a deepwater blowout."
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