Oil Spill: Environmental Reviews for Deepwater Drilling

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The White House announced today that all new deepwater drilling will require environmental reviews. What’s that you say? You assume an activity as transparently fraught with danger and risk as deepwater oil and natural gas drilling, one where human or mechanical errors can lead to major environmental damage, that an activity like that would already require environmental reviews?

As BP’s Deepwater Horizon accident showed, however, that was never really the case. BP’s well—and many other deepwater sites in the Gulf of Mexico—received what’s known as a “categorical exclusion” from reviews called for under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). As a result, those drilling sites received far too little oversight for potential risks. A report released today by the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) found that the exclusions granted by the former Minerals Management Service (MMS) often relied on decades-old data. This was regulatory oversight in name alone, and according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, it’s going to stop:

In light of the increasing levels of complexity and risk – and the consequent potential environmental impacts – associated with deepwater drilling, we are taking a fresh look at the NEPA process and the types of environmental reviews that should be required for offshore activity. We are committed to full compliance with both the letter and the spirit of NEPA.  Our decision-making must be fully informed by an understanding of the potential environmental consequences of federal actions permitting offshore oil and gas development.

Of course, with the White House’s moratorium on new deepwater drilling still in place, this regulatory shift will have to wait. But the report is a sobering reminder of just how little oversight had been in place as the oil and gas industry pushed into deeper and deeper waters. As Salazar said, technology seemed to outpace safety—it will be the job of MMS’s successor, the new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), which seems based around the idea that the longer the name, the better the oversight. (Though I prefer the name I’ve heard Greenpeace call it: BUMMER.)

Still, a question remains to be answered on deepwater drilling: how safe is safe? The oil industry and the Gulf states—including some of the towns hardest hit by the spill—are pushing hard on the White House to lift the deepwater drilling moratorium, which may run until the end of November. The economic damage—especially locally—is real, and even within the President’s own oil spill commission, there are voices pushing for an early end to the moratorium, as the AP reported yesterday:

William K. Reilly, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator who co-chairs the president’s commission investigating the oil spill, said in an interview with The Associated Press that he doesn’t understand why rigs that have passed inspections can’t resume drilling even while the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management conducts a broader review of safety offshore.

Fair enough—but as the drawn out endgame of the Deepwater Horizon spill shows, actually fixing an underwater blown well remains incredibly difficult. So if the White House means it when they say they want the oil industry to prove they can handle a blowout before new drilling resumes, well, I don’t know how Salazar will be able to raise the moratorium by the end of November, let alone immediately. It’s the question we need to answer: how safe is safe?