Prior to the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama administration talked tough about reforming the corrupt and scientifically bankrupt management of offshore drilling in America — but did tragically little to tranform the Interior Department’s arm-in-arm relationship with Big Oil.
It’s been a year since the Deepwater Horizon exploded, and history is repeating itself: Despite the adminstration’s never-again rhetoric and avowed commitment to reform, Interior continues to kowtow to offshore drillers. Congress has been even more derelict in its duty. The House introduced eighty four bills in response to the BP spill. It passed just two of them. They both died in the Senate.
As a result, America is not meaningfully safer from a petro-catastrophe today than it was on the eve of the BP blowout. “This absolutely could happen again tomorrow,” says Miyoko Sakashita, Oceans Director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a top drilling watchdog. Ed Markey the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, agrees: “The American people and the citizens of the Gulf shouldn’t believe that another major spill couldn’t occur, or that our response wouldn’t be as sub-par as it was during last summer’s spill.”
In the year since BP’s blowout, the Obama administration has reshuffled the bureaucratic deck. The infamous Minerals Management Service is now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. But while BOEMRE — whose dreary acronym is a fitting anagram of BORE ME — has touted change, it has effectively picked up where MMS left off, greenlighting oil exploration on a foundation of junk, Bush-era science and get-out-of-environmental-review-free cards.
The deepwater drillers themselves, meanwhile, have slapped a coat of yellow paint on a “capping stack” — a version of the apparatus that finally tamed the BP blowout after 87 days and nearly 5 million barrels of oil spilled — and told America, essentially, Trust us. We’re good to get back in the water. Never mind that the industry’s vaunted solution for safeguarding the Gulf can only recover one third of the volume of oil that could be produced in a worst-case, uncontrolled blowout.
A year after BP’s blowout, here’s an overview of what remains to be fixed:
The cause of the BP disaster, we now know, was a design flaw: The drilling rig’s blowout preventer didn’t have the force needed to shear through a bent piece of pipe. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently said he’d consider forcing big oil companies to design blowout preventers that actually live up to the name. In the meantime, the administration has continued to issue drilling permits to rigs equipped with the defective, built-to-spill technology.
When the Bush administration sought to expand deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico during the aughts, it rammed through environmental reviews (known as EIS or Environmental Impact Statements) based on junk science. Bush-era EIS contemplated a large spill as being 1,500 barrels, said blowouts were “highly unlikely,” predicted a “negligible” impact on fisheries, and said that the region’s wetlands were not vulnerable to any “significant” damage.
The BP spill exposed the bankruptcy of these impact statements, but the Obama administration has not thrown them out. Instead, deepwater drilling continues to be premised on the risible risk assessments of the Cheney era, augmented by token “environmental assesments” today required by BOERME.
How rigorous is this new layer of review? New exporatory wells in the Gulf have been greenlighted under the Obama Interior’s finding that there’s “no evidence” that drilling could “significantly affect the quality of the human environment.”
“Interior has failed to complete a comprehensive environmental impact statement on deepwater drilling since the BP disaster,” says Derb Carter, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Based on the catastrophic damage of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a finding of no potential for significant impact from deepwater exploration is unsupportable,” he adds, “and therefore illegal.”
Projects in the Pipeline
During the ugliest days of the BP gusher, the Obama administration placed a moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf, suspending more than a dozen drilling projects that had already been permitted. Far from of subjecting those projects to increased scrutiny based lessons learned from the BP disaster, Salazar & Co. simply greenlighted them again at the beginning of this year, citing the companies’ “special circumstances.”
The “Cat-Ex” Loophole
NEPA, the nation’s bedrock environmental law, is clear: Anyone who wants to significantly disturb a natural area has to undergo a stringent environmental review process to minimize any damage. There is a loophole, however, a “categorical exclusion” originally designed to keep small, safe projects (think: an outhouse at a trail head) from getting caught up in red tape.
Over the years, this loophole was stretched fantastically to include the riskiest forms of offshore oil drilling, including BP’s well. While the Obama administration deserves some credit for ending “cat-exes” for deepwater drilling (insisiting instead on the see-no-evil environmental assessments mentioned above), BOEMRE continues to grant categorical exclusions to drilling in shallow water, as though shallow-water drilling were free of catastrophic risk. It’s not: The largest Gulf of Mexico spill prior to the BP disaster was 1979’s Ixtoc blowout. It occured in water just 160 feet deep, and took nearly 10 months to shut off.
Trust, Don’t Verify
You may remember that Big Oil’s oil-spill response plans were a joke; BP’s wrote of responding to the threat to walruses and other arctic fauna in the Gulf of Mexico. The laughable plans seemed to epitomize the self-regulation MMS allowed the oil giants. That culture persists at BOEMRE; according to the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Department of the Interior “continues to approve new drilling without first approving drilling companies’ oil spill response plans — instead relying on their certifications that they would be able to respond.”
The MMS Staffers
When Salazar took the helm at Interior in 2009 he promised to root out the “bad apples” at MMS. The rot, of course, went much deeper than that. “The people that are ethically challenged are the career managers, the people who come up through the ranks at MMS,” a former marine biologist with the agency told me last year. “In order to get promoted at MMS, you better get invested in this pro development oil culture.”
Despite changing the name of the agency, the staff remains fundamentally unaltered. “They changed the name, but all the people are the same,” said William Reilly, a co-chair of president Obama’s oil spill commission. Reilly takeaway says all you need to know about the administration’s response to the nation’s worst environmental disaster: “It’s embarrassing.”