U.S. oil drilling regulator ignored experts' red flags on environmental risks

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The federal agency responsible for regulating U.S. offshore oil drilling repeatedly ignored warnings from government scientists about environmental risks in its push to approve energy exploration activities quickly, according to numerous documents and interviews.

Minerals Management Service officials, who can receive cash bonuses in the thousands of dollars based in large part on meeting federal deadlines for leasing offshore oil and gas exploration, frequently changed documents and bypassed legal requirements aimed at protecting the marine environment, the documents show.

This has dramatically weakened the scientific checks on offshore drilling that were established under landmark laws such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, say those who have worked with the MMS, which is part of the Interior Department.

"It's a war between the biologists and the engineers," said Thomas A. Campbell, who served as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's general counsel under President George H.W. Bush. "They just have a very different worldview, and sometimes the engineers simply don't listen to the biologists."

Interviews and documents show numerous examples in which senior officials discounted scientific data and advice -- even from scientists elsewhere in the federal government -- that would have impeded oil and gas companies drilling offshore.

Under the Bush and Obama administrations, red flags raised by scientists at NOAA and the Marine Mammal Commission have gone unheeded. Obama officials say they are taking steps to ensure that science guides drilling decisions; former agency officials say such questions are rarely as simple as they seem.

Process for leases

Several instances involving the leasing process for a section of Alaska's Beaufort Sea and the Gulf of Mexico illustrate the problems the agency faces.

In 2006, then-MMS biologist Jeff 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.

But Childs's conclusion that "a large oil spill . . . is likely to result in significant adverse effects on local [fish] populations requiring three or more generations to recover" would have forced the MMS to conduct a full environmental impact statement before auctioning off a lease in the Beaufort Sea.

"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 e-mail 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.

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