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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.

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But the pattern of dismissing biologists' input has continued under the Obama administration. NOAA must judge whether companies have established adequate programs to monitor and minimize their impact on marine mammals before issuing a permit to operate offshore.

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Last year, federal marine mammal experts told the MMS that it had minimized the environmental risks of drilling when assessing the impact of auctioning leases in four areas in Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Agency officials did not respond, although they are required under law to either adopt the experts' recommendations or explain within 120 days why they reject them. Their draft analysis was not finalized before the administration postponed further action on lease sales in March.

When asked why the MMS did not comply with the law, Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said, "We are going to continue to be aggressive in our reform agenda to ensure that all laws are followed."

In June, a review panel with NOAA issued a scathing critique of Shell Exploration and Production's plan to conduct an open-water marine survey in Alaska's Chukchi Sea. There "are no clearly stated 'scientific objectives' " in Shell's proposal, wrote Sue Moore from NOAA's Office of Science and Technology. "The plan makes a number of misleading statements that should be brought to the attention of the authors," wrote Tim Ragen, executive director of the Marine Mammal Commission.

But NOAA's Office of Protected Resources gave Shell the permit without demanding modifications. Ragen said the MMS has consistently minimized the environmental risks of offshore energy exploration.

"Policymakers need to know we don't have perfect information on many aspects of oil and gas operations. In essence, we're playing a game of probabilities involving significant uncertainty," he said. But the commission gets no "feedback on our recommendations, so I don't know how much attention they get."


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