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Govt Agency: Offshore Drilling Regulator Understated Risks of Oil Spills in Plans to Expand Drilling

In 2009, the Minerals Management Service submitted a five-year plan for expanding drilling off the coast of Alaska. But the plan ran into criticism from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency the monitors oceans.

Last week, we reported that in addition to the spotted history of the Minerals Management Service, the regulator responsible for overseeing offshore drilling, parts of the agency had withheld data on offshore drilling from those on staff who were responsible for assessing environmental risk.

At the time, Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight told us that "the priority for the agency was on production rather than on regulation." To that point, the evidence continues to mount.

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Last year, according to information we learned through POGO and which was also reported in The Huffington Post, MMS submitted a five-year plan for expanding offshore drilling off the coast of Alaska. That plan drew fire from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency responsible for monitoring and gathering science on oceans. Last fall, NOAA told MMS that the plan understated both the frequency and the environmental and economic impacts of oil spills. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an environmental watchdog group for whistleblowers, noted NOAA's concerns at the time.

From a memo containing NOAA's comments to MMS:

The DPP's [MMS's Draft Proposed Program] analysis of the risk and impacts of accidental spills and chronic impacts are understated and generally not supported or referenced, using vague terms and phrases such as "no substantive degradation is expected" and "some marine mammals could be harmed." This is particularly problematic for expanding oil and gas production.

"MMS needs to more directly address the challenges of Arctic and subarctic spill response ... before proposing further oil and gas development in Alaska," NOAA said.

NOAA has since stressed that the regulator heeded its memo and included more detailed information about the impact of spills in a subsequent plan, according to The Huffington Post. The agency has declined to comment to ProPublica about the job MMS has performed as a regulator. MMS has also not returned multiple requests for comment.

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