MMS circumvented science and suppressed the opinions of scientists concerned about the environmental impacts of drilling.
On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon project exploded, killing 11 people and touching off the largest oil spill in US history. The Minerals Management Service (MMS), the federal agency responsible for overseeing offshore drilling, came under ethical scrutiny for its involvement in multiple scandals involving employees’ cozy relationships with oil company employees, including the acceptance of financial favors, drug use, and rampant conflict of interest.1,2 What is more troubling still, however, is the MMS’ extensive history of suppressing science and underestimating environmental impacts in order to ensure the speedy approval of oil industry projects.
The abuses of science include the following areas:
On April 6, 2009, MMS granted BP’s lease at Deepwater Horizon a “categorical exclusion” from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), essentially exempting the proposed action from a detailed environmental impact statement. Under NEPA, the MMS is required to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for all drilling decisions in the Outer Continental Shelf which significantly affect the environment. If the MMS is unsure of the environmental impacts of an action it may complete a preliminary report, known as an Environmental Assessment (EA), to determine whether a more in-depth EIS is needed.3
In the case of the Deepwater Horizon lease in 2009, along with hundreds of other drilling activities in the Gulf of Mexico, neither of these environmental reports were undertaken. By granting a categorical exclusion to the Deepwater Horizon lease the MMS was certifying that BP’s actions were expected to have “no significant individual or cumulative effect on the quality of the human environment."4 According to the DOI, between 250 and 400 such waivers are granted each year for Gulf of Mexico drilling projects.5
This rash of waivers is a symptom of MMS’s long-standing deference to industry wishes and expertise. Indeed, the regulations governing the issuance of categorical exclusions specifically allow the regulated industry to determine whether further environmental assessments are needed. The 2005 regulation states that “the lessee or operator is in the best position to determine the environmental effects of its proposed activity,” and that the decision to allow a categorical exclusion is based on the “impact analysis provided by the lessee or operator for his project."6 This language baldly states that the MMS relies on their lessees, like BP, to do the research that estimates environmental impacts. The MMS’s own rules allow it to base decisions whether to pursue further environmental research on statements prepared by the oil companies themselves.
The process by which the MMS allows categorical exclusions involves “tiering,” in which EAs and EISs are based on earlier, and perhaps old or faulty, statements prepared by the MMS.7 One such document in the case of Deepwater Horizon was a May 2000 EA of deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, which asserted that deep-water operations are similar enough to conventional oil exploration that added scientific scrutiny is not warranted. However, there may be evidence of scientific manipulation of these findings. While the draft version warned that “the oil industry’s experience base in deep-water well control is limited” and that a massive spill “could easily turn out to be a potential showstopper for the [Outer Continental Shelf] program if the industry and MMS do not come together as a whole to prevent such an incident,"8 these concerns were removed from the final version.9 The final document instead concluded that there was no need to prepare an environmental impact analysis for deep-water drilling: “Most deep-water operations and activities are substantially the same as those associated with conventional operations and activities on the continental shelf.10”
Because of the MMS’ practice of re-using old results, once they had decided deepwater drilling did not pose an added risk any possibility for further research on the unique environmental effects and hazards of deep-water drilling was cut short, including the need to seek details and alternatives regarding the mitigation of underwater spills. For example, in a 2000 EA for Shell deepwater drilling, the MMS noted, “although not a new potential source of spills, the likelihood of spills from loss of control (blowouts) in deep water may be different from the risk of spills in shallow water. … Regaining well control in deep water may be a problem since it could require the operator to cap and control well flow at the seabed in great water depths … MMS feels that if a blowout were to occur, it is more likely for a blowout in deep water to occur at the seafloor.”11 This excerpt is telling: while the MMS recognized “scientifically” the novel dangers posed by deepwater drilling, it (characteristically) did not recognize them politically. The same EA concluded that Shell’s activities “will not cause significant or undue harm to the quality of the human environment and preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement will not be necessary,” despite its own statements about the dangers of deep-sea blowouts. Ten years later, when the Deepwater Horizon well experienced a blowout exactly as the Shell EA had warned, no more research seemed to have been done on the mitigation of those “seafloor blowouts.”
In addition to the times (such as in 2009 in the case of Deepwater Horizon) in which they applied categorical exclusions in order to avoid environmental assessments, when they did conduct assessments the MMS consistently used and accepted science that failed to predict the possible size and scope of a blowout. Although MMS assessed the environmental impact of drilling in the central and western Gulf of Mexico on three occasions in 2007, including a specific evaluation of BP’s Lease 206 at Deepwater Horizon, none of them accurately documented the effects of a major blowout, underestimating the potential size of a spill like the Deepwater Horizon by at least 280 times, using the most conservative government estimates.12
BP’s February 2009 exploration plan for the Deepwater Horizon project also exhibits egregious underestimates: it asserts repeatedly that it is “unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities,” and that “due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected.”13 Given the wording of the 2005 regulation about the knowledge held by lessees, it is likely that this BP exploration plan was the major basis for MMS’ decision to allow a categorical exclusion.
Several administration officials have stated that the MMS’ overuse of categorical exclusions is due to a law that requires them to review an exploration plan within 30 days. President Obama explained on May 27, 2010 that because of this 30-day review period, there is “no time for the appropriate environmental review. The result is, they’re continually waived.”14 However, a November 2008 lawsuit found that there is additional leeway built into the system, as the 30-day clock begins only when the agency deems the exploration plan complete.15 The results of this suit imply that MMS was fully capable of conducting an environmental assessment of the Deepwater Horizon well. Troublingly, even as the administration has declared a drilling moratorium in the Gulf to prevent further damages, the MMS granted at least seven new permits for various types of drilling and five environmental waivers, according to records.16
The Deepwater Horizon incident is just one example MMS’s “honor system” approach to regulating industry. The MMS has repeatedly pressured scientists to ignore or tone down environmental impacts stated in environmental reviews.17,18 In addition, DOI has, on numerous occasions, sought to keep lease sales on schedule using the process of “tiering:” conducting EAs that recycle old data from previous EIS’s, in order to avoid a new finding of significant adverse impact. Such a finding would, by law, require a full EIS for that sale, adding months or years to the schedule.19
Given the size and scope of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, an oil spill that dwarfs the Exxon Valdez spill by seven times and is expected to have catastrophic environmental consequences for years into the future, the fact that the MMS cleared the lease for a categorical exclusion seems tragically short-sighted at best, and deliberately negligent at worst.
In addition to allowing industry to dictate which science is to be carried out, MMS also has a record of direct manipulation of the scientific results presented in its official documents. In several cases, DOI excluded or directed its scientists to exclude analyses that found harm to wildlife from oil exploration activities, according to internal MMS emails released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) in January 2008.20
In a June 2006 email, former MMS biologist Jeff Childs warned his chain-of-command that “bringing vessels, rigs, platforms, etc. to Alaska from Outside are likely to” introduce invasive species that “may very well yield much greater significant adverse impacts than a large oil spill.”21 MMS then removed Childs from working on the issue of invasive species because he “refused to implement DOI [Interior] and MMS policy vis-à-vis invasive species,” which was that these findings were to be excluded from reports. A March 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirmed that Childs’ analysis of invasive species impacts was deleted by management from a 2006 environmental assessment.22
In a separate incident, Childs wrote a detailed analysis of how the Exxon Valdez spill had harmed generations of fish in Alaska's Prince William Sound and how a future spill could do the same in the Beaufort Sea. In July 2006, MMS substantially altered the impact analysis of Childs for an Environmental Assessment of a proposed Beaufort Sea lease sale. Childs had reported that a large oil spill would be “likely to result in significant adverse effects on local populations requiring three or more generations to recover.”
The “significant adverse effects” finding would have triggered the need for a full EIS and additional consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Services (the federal agency charged with implementing the Endangered Species Act for marine species), likely leading to the adoption of additional mitigation measures to minimize harm to the habitat of the Pacific salmon.23 “I have concerns about Jeff's analysis and will not insert it into the [environmental assessment] being sent to HQ at this time,” Deborah Cranswick, chief of the environmental assessment section at the MMS, wrote in an email June 23 to her Alaska colleagues. “I believe that Regional management needs to review it first because Jeff has concluded new significant impacts from oil spills. This will trigger an [environmental impact statement] -- and thus delay the lease for at least a year.”
Six days later, Paul Stang, Alaska's MMS regional supervisor for leasing and environment, sent a hand-written note to Childs saying, “As you know, a conclusion of significance under [the National Environmental Policy Act] means an EIS and delay in sale 202. That would, as you can imagine, not go over well with HQ and others.” When Childs balked at deleting the finding, another manager rewrote it so that the lease process could move ahead without delay.24
In several other instances, scientists’ concerns about harm to wildlife were pushed aside by the MMS in the interest of helping oil companies. In 2008, MMS approved drill plans from Shell off the coast of Alaska, a region that is home to one-tenth of the world’s polar bears, disregarding the warnings of MMS biologist James Wilder that the impacts of an oil spill upon polar bears had not been adequately considered.25 In another case, leaked emails from former MMS marine mammologist Lisa Rotterman showed that she felt her concerns about endangered bowhead whales were being ignored, and key insights in her report had been replaced.26 In March 2010, the GAO released a report that found that scientists responsible for creating environmental reports in the Alaska OCS region of the MMS suffered from the fact that the region had no written rules for how to apply NEPA, no definition of what constitutes a “significant environmental impact,” and a propensity within the agency for scientific data to be illegally withheld from report-writers.27
In addition, several instances have been noted when the MMS failed to receive the proper permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act. On May 14, 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity issued a 60-day notice of intent to sue, saying that since Salazar took office, the DOI had approved three lease sales, more than 100 seismic surveys and more than 300 drilling operations without permits required by the MMPA and the ESA that are designed to protect endangered whales and other marine mammals from harmful offshore oil activities.28 Internal emails show the MMS ignored one such requirement because it was rushed to get permits approved in time for oil companies to take advantage of the 2008 “open water” season, when the Arctic ice recedes enough for ship traffic.29
It seems that the DOI is finally becoming aware of its problem with scientific integrity. A week after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Mary L. Kendall, the acting inspector general for the Department of the Interior, quietly released a report recommending that the DOI adopt a scientific integrity policy: “The Department of the Interior...has never had, and currently operates without, a scientific integrity policy,” she stated, noting that the DOI has neither a system for tracking potential scientific misconduct, nor rules that ensure such misconduct could be punished. “Without sound policies to protect the scientific community and general public from potentially flawed scientific research, data, and publications,” Kendall wrote, “Interior’s reputation and its public trust are at risk.”30
1. Ian Urbina, “Inspector General’s Inquiry Faults Regulators,” The New York Times, May 24, 2010, sec. U.S.
2. Derek Kravitz and Mary Pat Flaherty, “Report Says Oil Agency Ran Amok,” The Washington Post.
3. Nancy Sutley, Testimony of Nancy Sutley, Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (Washington D.C., 2010).
4. Department of the Interior, “Implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969; Final Rule,” Federal Register 73, no. 200 (October 15, 2008): 61318.
5. Juliet Eilperin, “U.S. exempted BP's Gulf of Mexico drilling from environmental impact study,” The Washington Post, May 5, 2010.
6. Department of the Interior Minerals Management Service, “Oil and Gas and Sulphur Operations in the Outer Continental Shelf—Plans and Information; Final Rule,” Federal Register 70, no. 167 (August 30, 2005).
7. James Wilkins and Ryan Seidmann, “Blanco v. Burton: What Did We Learn from Louisiana's Recent OCS Challenge?,” Pace Environmental Law Review (January 1, 2008).
8. J.B. Regg et al., “Deepwater Development: A Reference Document for the Deepwater Environmental Assessment, Gulf of Mexico OCS (1998 through 2007)” (U.S. DOI, 2000).
9. Minerals Management Service Gulf of Mexico OCS Region, Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Operations and Activities: Environmental Assessment(New Orleans: U.S. Department of the Interior, May 2000).
10. Juliet Eilperin, “U.S. oil drilling regulator ignored experts' red flags on environmental risks,” The Washington Post, May 25, 2010.
11. Minerals Management Service Gulf of Mexico OCS Region, Initial Development Operations Coordination Document, Green Canyon Area, Blocks 158 and 202, Site Specific Environmental Assessment (New Orleans: U.S. Department of the Interior, May 9, 2000).
12. Eilperin, “U.S. exempted BP's Gulf of Mexico drilling from environmental impact study.”
13. B.P. Exploration and Production Inc., Mississippi Canyon Block 252, Initial Exploration Plan, February 2009.
14. Barack Obama, “PRESS CONFERENCE WITH PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA” (Press Conference, Washington D.C., May 27, 2010).
15. Juliet Eilperin, “Administration may have more time to review oil-drilling proposals than it says,” The Washington Post, June 2, 2010.
16. Ian Urbina, “Despite Moratorium, Drilling Projects Move Ahead,” The New York Times, May 23, 2010, sec. U.S.
17. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, “INTERIOR STIFLES POLAR BEAR PROTECTIONS FROM ARCTIC DRILLING,” News Release, Peer.org, January 21, 2008.
18. Ian Urbina, “U.S. Said to Allow Drilling Without Needed Permits,” The New York Times, May 13, 2010, sec. U.S.
19. James Wilkins and Ryan Seidmann, “Blanco v. Burton: What Did We Learn from Louisiana's Recent OCS Challenge?,” Pace Environmental Law Review (January 1, 2008).
20. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, “INVASIVE SPECIES THREAT FROM ARCTIC OFFSHORE DRILLING IGNORED,” News Release, Peer.org, January 24, 2008.
21. Jeff Childs, “invasive species reassignment,” June 14, 2006, (Peer.org).
22. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, “INVASIVE SPECIES THREAT FROM ARCTIC OFFSHORE DRILLING IGNORED.”
23. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, “ARCTIC OCEAN OIL REVIEWS SOFT-PEDALED EXXON VALDEZ,” News Release, Peer.org, February 13, 2008.
24. Eilperin, “U.S. oil drilling regulator ignored experts' red flags on environmental risks.”
25. James Wilder, “Shell EP: Polar Bear issues and NEPA concerns,” January 27, 2007 (Peer.org).
26. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, “BOWHEAD WHALE IMPERILED BY ARCTIC DRILLING PLANS,” News Release, Peer.org, February 19, 2008.
27. United States Government Accountability Office, Offshore Oil and Gas Development: Additional Guidance Would Help Strengthen the Minerals Management Service's Assessment of Environmental Impacts in the North Aleutian Basin, March 2010.
28. Center for Biological Diversity, “Lawsuit to Challenge Salazar's Wholesale Disregard of Marine Mammal Protection Laws in Gulf of Mexico,” Press Release, biologicaldiversity.org, May 14, 2010.
29. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, “U.S. TRUSTING OIL COMPANIES TO SAFEGUARD ARCTIC WILDLIFE,” News Release, Peer.org, May 15, 2008.
30. Office of the Inspector General, Interior Lacks a Scientific Integrity Policy, Evaluation Report, April 2010.