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Criticism of the Minerals Management Service Offshore Oil Drilling Plans and Projects

Rating: Mountain (issue somewhat unclear)

The charges

The explosion on the BP (British Petroleum) Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, 2010 and the resulting catastrophic oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico have exposed the federal agency charged with overseeing offshore drilling—the Minerals Management Service (MMS)1—to intense public scrutiny.

A series of investigations and leaked documents had already uncovered MMS’s long history of explicit abuses of science and egregious ethics violations under the Bush administration.  Current and former MMS scientists state that they have “repeatedly had their scientific findings changed to indicate no environmental impact or had their calculations of spill risks downgraded.”2

In this article we address the claims that those abuses of science have continued at MMS as the Obama administration sought to expand offshore drilling.  In particular we consider two claims: (1) that MMS underestimated the frequency of oil spills and the magnitude of potential environmental harm in drafting its 5-Year Plan for offshore drilling, and (2) that MMS routinely granted permits for oil drilling and exploration in violation of environmental statutes.

(1) Scientific Criticism of MMS's Five-Year Plans for Offshore Oil Drilling

On March 31, 2010, President Obama announced new plans to open up large parts of the East Coast (from Delaware to the central coast of Florida), the southeast Gulf Coast, and the north coast of Alaska to oil drilling.The announcement coincided with a request for public comment in preparation for an environmental impact statement (EIS) for a new 2012 to 2017 5-Year oil and gas leasing program.The new plan is to replace the 2010 to 2015 Draft Proposed Program (DPP) developed under the Bush Administration.5

The earlier 2010 to 2015 DPP had come under criticism from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  In a September 2009 letter, NOAA director Jane Lubchenco provided comments on the draft plan and criticized MMS for a number of scientific errors and omissions.For example, NOAA charged that MMS understated the frequency of oil spills by using data from 1973 to 2004 and neglecting recent data from years 2005 and onwards, which would have given a more accurate portrayal of the dangers of offshore drilling due to Hurricane Katrina and other storms that occurred in 2005 and subsequent years.7

NOAA also charged that “the DPP’s analysis of the risks and impacts of accidental spills and chronic impacts are understated and generally not supported or referenced” and that MMS failed to fully evaluate such factors as climate change, invasive species and underwater noise pollution.NOAA also warned that “lease areas should not be further considered in the DPP until the CEQ [Council on Environmental Quality]-led Ocean Policy Task Force has released its recommendations and directives,” a report that has yet to be published.9

Was it political interference in science?

Unclear.  NOAA’s criticisms apply to a document prepared under the Bush administration (2010 to 2015 DPP), but it is uncertain how many of these concerns carry over to the Obama administration’s new plan (2012 to 2017 DPP).10  It is also unclear whether incidents of explicit abuse of science have continued under the Obama administration, although statements in the press give reason to believe that they have.

The Obama administration is accepting public comment on its preparation and scoping of an EIS but it has not yet released an official draft of the 2012 to 2017 program (in contradiction to the process described on their website), so it is unclear whether the problems identified by NOAA have been addressed.  However, while the new 2012 to 2017 proposal limits the geographic areas considered for oil and gas lease sales in comparison to the 2010 to 2015 DPP, it does leave open the possibility of drilling in certain regions where NOAA had voiced explicit concerns.

NOAA expressed particular reservations over drilling off the coasts of Alaska because of the pristine environment in those regions and the high value of the local fisheries.  In their letter, NOAA recommended excluding the North Aleutian Basin (Bristol Bay and Bering Sea shelf), certain blocks in the Chukchi Sea within 25 miles of the coast, and numerous other “Sensitive Areas” in other regions.11

The new 2012 to 2017 plan does indeed protect Alaska's Bristol Bay from future drilling, removes several regions from consideration for exploration and reduces the area of the Eastern Gulf of Mexico region under consideration for drilling.  On May 27, 2010, President Obama announced, at a news conference on the federal government's response to the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the suspension of planned exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off the coast of Alaska.  However, it remains to be seen if NOAA's concerns about numerous "Sensitive Areas" and other issues will be addressed in the new plan. 

Although a NOAA spokesperson recently stated that “the [2012 to 2017] plan included more detailed assessments of the environmental impact on marine habitats and endangered species, as well climate change and ocean acidification,”12 it is not clear whether all of NOAA’s concerns have been addressed – particularly, the impacts to fisheries and Alaska natives and the need for updated data on the frequency of oil spills, among other gaps in information.  Additionally, although the CEQ-led Ocean Policy Task Force released an interim report in September 2009, it has not released its final report, one which NOAA commented is crucial to the consideration of lease areas in the DPP.13

The Secretary of the Interior is not required to follow NOAA’s recommendations in drafting a 5-Year Program for oil and gas leasing.  Under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), the Secretary must consider suggestions from “any interested Federal agency” during the preparation of the leasing program.14

(2) Exemptions for Oil Drilling and Exploration Projects

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has also brought to light the fact that MMS approved hundreds of oil drilling and exploration projects without obtaining the necessary permits designed to protect endangered whales and other marine mammals under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).  Despite an announced moratorium on approvals of new oil projects, MMS appears to be continuing to approve new projects.15

Further, it was revealed that MMS exempted BP’s Deepwater Horizon project from a thorough environmental review by giving them a “categorical exclusion” – a loophole in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that is intended to apply only to minimally intrusive projects.  The exclusion came after several MMS reviews of the project area concluded that an oil spill was unlikely to occur and, if it did, would be limited in scope and impact.16

The Center for Biological Diversity has announced lawsuits to end both of these practices in the approval of offshore oil drilling projects.17

Was it political interference in science?

Yes.  Evading legally mandated scientific requirements—such as conducting environmental impact assessments under NEPA or obtaining permits or consultations under the ESA and MMPA—is a serious mark against the scientific integrity of MMS decision making.

What is the best way to ensure scientific integrity?

It is clear that the entire process for approving offshore oil drilling projects has been discredited and the Department of the Interior needs to take significant steps to reform the process and ensure that scientific information is no longer manipulated to justify rapid approval.  In June 2010, DOI divided MMS into three separate agencies, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and Office of Natural Resources Revenue.

For more analysis of scientific integrity charges against the Obama administration, see the Mountain or Molehill feature.

1. MMS, housed within the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), is “the federal agency that manages the nation’s natural gas, oil, and other mineral resources on the outer continental shelf (OCS).”  See MMS webpage, About the Minerals Management Service.
2. Urbina, I. 2010. U.S. said to allow drilling without needed permits.  New York Times, May 13.

3. Barack H. Obama, “Remarks by the President on Energy Security at Andrews Air Force Base,” March 31, 2010
.  See also, Ken Salazar, “Remarks of the Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar on the Announcement of Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration and Development Strategy,” March 31, 2010.
4. Department of Interior, Minerals Management Service, Notice of Intent to Prepare and Scope an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2012-2017, 75 Fed. Reg. 16,828 (April 2, 2010). 

5. Department of Interior, Minerals Management Service, Draft Proposed Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program 2010 – 2015, Considering Comments of Governors, Section 18 Factors and OCS Alternative Energy Opportunities, January 2009. 

6. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 2009. Comments on the U.S. Department of the Interior/Minerals Management Service Draft Proposed Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2010-2015. September 9.

7. NOAA letter, Comment 6, pp. 10-11.
8. NOAA letter, Comments 7-9, pp. 11-13.
9. NOAA letter, Comment 1, p. 3.
10. RLMiller, “Offshore Oil Drilling: Politics Trumps Science,” Daily Kos Blog, posted April 5, 2010.

11. NOAA letter, NOAA Response to MMS Question #2, pp. 16-18.
12. Froomkin, J.  2010.  NOAA Warned Interior It Was Underestimating Threat of Serious Spill.  Huffington Post,  May 3. 

13. NOAA letter, Comments 1, 6, 9-12, pp. 3-4, 10-14.
14. OCSLA, 43 U.S.C. §1344.
15. Urbina 2010; See documents showing recent approvals
16. Eilperin, J. 2010. U.S. exempted BP's Gulf of Mexico drilling from environmental impact study.  Washington Post, May 5
17. Center for Biological Diversity, “Lawsuit to Challenge Salazar’s Wholesale Disregard of Marine Mammal Protection Laws in Gulf of Mexico: 400-plus Oil Projects Illegally Approved by Salazar Without Permits to Harm Endangered Whales,”press release, 14 May 2010
; Center for Biological Diversity, “Lawsuit Filed to Stop Department of Interior from Continuing to Issue New Offshore Drilling Permits with No Environmental Review,” press release, 18 May 2010.
18. Straub, N. of Greenwire.  2010.  Interior Unveils Plan to Split MMS into 3 Agencies.  New York Times, May 20. 

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