Interior Department Continues to Issue “Categorical Exclusions” for Oil Drilling, Administration Official Acknowledges

By Jonathan Blakely

May 12, 2010 11:03am

In the wake of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) has continued to issue “categorical exclusions” for oil companies, allowing them to bypass the last stage of environmental review before proceeding with drilling projects, an Interior Department official told ABC News Wednesday.

But, the official emphasized, the problem is current law, which only gives the Department of the Interior 30 days to conduct the final review.

With the resources and that amount of time, it’s not really possible to conduct a full environmental impact, said the Interior Department official, who spoke to ABC News on condition of anonymity.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday that he is submitting a proposal to Congress that among other steps would “increase MMS’s authority to review exploration plans that companies submit.  Currently, MMS is required by Congressional mandate to review exploration plans within 30 days.  We want to increase the review period to 90 days, with an option to extend, to provide more time to conduct additional environmental analysis on exploration plans. Additional time to review exploration plans would supplement additional environmental reviews that are conducted at several stages of the leasing and development process.”

Critics say the Interior Department needs to be more aggressive.

Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Tucson, Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, told ABC News that the Interior Department is in fact able to conduct reviews in 30 days, as they do in Alaska.

“They have 30 days and instead they do an approval in 24 hours” with the exemption, Suckling said. “They’re just rubber-stamping this stuff.”

Suckling said in a statement that MMS officials have “learned absolutely nothing from this national catastrophe. (MMS) is still illegally exempting dangerous offshore drilling projects in the Gulf of Mexico from all environmental review. It is outrageous and unacceptable.”

The BP drilling plan approved April 6, 2010, for the site that is now the cause of the Gulf disaster, says that “a scenario for a potential blowout of the well from which BP would expect to have the highest volume of liquid hydrocarbons is not required for the operations proposed in this EP.”

MMS approved a different BP drilling plan on May 5, 2010, providing the similar “Blowout Scenario,” stating: “Information not required for activities proposed in this Initial Exploration Plan."

Suckling said that MMS also had the option of rejecting the off-shore drilling proposals but “that’s not even a concept in the MMS.” Suckling said that the fact that BP had previously claimed a blowout wasn’t possible should make all similar claims suspect.

“It is inconceivable that MMS could look out its window at what is likely the worst oil spill in American history, then rubber stamp new BP drilling permits based on BP’s patently false statements that an oil spill cannot occur and would not be dangerous if it did,” Suckling said. “Heads need to start rolling at MMS.”

Suckling says that since April 20, 2010, the day of the BP disaster, MMS has approved 27 new offshore drilling projects, 26 of which were approved “under the same environmental review exemption used to approve the disastrous BP drilling that is fouling the Gulf and its wildlife.”

The Interior Department official said those numbers are inaccurate and that four exploration plans have been approved since April 20 under “categorical exclusions.”

The official said that Suckling’s basic charge is not true.

In the first stage of a proposed drilling project, the official said, various environmental reviews are done before anything is okayed. The first round of reviews happen before lease sales are even scheduled. In the second stage, there are additional environmental assessments done before tracts of land are explored and developed. So a huge amount of environmental assessments are done before the third stage, the official said.

For that third stage Congress currently requires MMS to review oil and gas plans within 30 days, which the official said is not enough time to do an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement. What MMS has done for a long time is to say the environmental analyses have already been done essentially, the official said, so the government is going to issue a categorical exclusion to say they know enough about the environmental impact of the drilling project.

That’s a problem, the official said, the government needs to get MMS more time.

Officials from the Center for Biological Diversity aren’t buying it.

Suckling said that for “Secretary Salazar to allow MMS to exempt 26 new oil wells from environmental review in the midst of the ongoing Gulf crisis shows an extraordinary lapse of judgment. It is inconceivable that his attention is apparently on providing BP with new environmentally exempted offshore oil wells instead of shutting down the corrupt process which put billion of dollars into BP’s pocket and millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.”

-Jake Tapper

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