Journalism in the Public Interest

Obama Admin: No More Regulatory Shortcuts for Deepwater Drilling Projects

The Obama administration announced Monday that it is no longer fast-tracking offshore drilling projects in deep water by exempting them from detailed environmental review. Specifically, that means projects that use either a subsurface blowout preventer or a blowout preventer on a floating rig will need significantly more environmental review before drilling is allowed.

The exemptions, as we’ve noted, are exclusions to the National Environmental Policy Act, and they’ve long been used to speed the permit process for oil companies and to lighten the paperwork for regulators. These exclusions were expansive, covering the entire central and western part of the Gulf of Mexico—including BP’s plan to drill its “nightmare well” in the Gulf.

Since the Gulf spill, the Obama administration has been revisiting the way drilling projects like BP’s got fast-tracked under these exclusions, which were originally meant to avoid detailed environmental reviews for activities that were sure to have no significant environmental impact.

“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,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.

We’ve reported on the use of categorical exclusions during the BP disaster as well as the unanswered questions about how the near-blanket use of exclusions in the western and central Gulf of Mexico came to be. The White House Council on Environmental Quality had earlier told us that it no longer retains the documents about why the Gulf exclusions were created, but in a report released Monday, it said they were established in 1981 and 1986, “before deepwater drilling became widespread.”

The exclusions were established with the rationale that previous reviews had found that oil spills were unlikely to have significant environmental impacts. From the report:

The agency did not deem a catastrophic spill, comparable to the BP Oil spill, to be a reasonably foreseeable impact, based on historical information on spills in U.S. [Outer Continental Shelf] waters. Since April 20, 2010, that assumption will be revised, and [the Bureau of Ocean Energy] will take steps to incorporate catastrophic risk analysis going forward.

Regulators never conducted a site-specific review of BP’s Macondo well. The agency said in its report that “a site-specific review should also be undertaken in most cases,” and that the process for granting such exemption “was not transparent.” (Read the full report in our document viewer.)

The administration currently has placed a moratorium on deepwater drilling, but after the moratorium is lifted, regulators will require an environmental assessment.

The American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing the oil and gas industry, is none too pleased by this. In a statement, it argued that environmental review of offshore operations is “already extensive.”

“We’re concerned the change could add significantly to the department’s workload, stretching the timeline for approval of important energy development projects with no clear return in environmental protection," the group said. “We’re in favor of targeted changes to regulations that enhance safety and environmental protection, provided the changes allow for the efficient moving forward of energy development and job creation.”

But some believe the administration’s latest step doesn’t go far enough. The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that has been critical of the exclusions, called it a “positive step,” but pointed out that shallow-water drilling projects would still get the rubber stamp.

“It is good that the Obama administration is rhetorically committed to ending the use of regulatory shortcuts,” the group’s executive director, Kieran Suckling, said in a statement. But the report and the reforms “fail to address a number of realities, including the fact that non-deepwater offshore oil drilling is as dangerous as deepwater drilling, so full environmental review must also be done for these oil-drilling operations.”

Its all bullshit!! They aint never going to finish cleaning out the gulf. they spilt millions of gallons in the gulf and that shit just spreads and spreads.They just sent that shit to the bottem and most of it you can still see. I tell you what going to happen if they dont take care of this problem. The ocean as we know it..ill be gone in the next 10 years or so. All the sharkes animal life…dead!!! you know how toxic oil is to fish shark, or any sea life? Highly highly highy toxic!!! were going to kill our own food supply!!!! It all goes back to Revalations. They just dont want to spend the millions upon millions its going to cost to clean it all up!! The system of govtment is fucked up. They dont care about you or me!! They all are just about making as much money as possible.

Justin Parkinson

Aug. 23, 2010, 3:38 p.m.

So long as both sides are complaining, it’s a pretty good bet that you’re hit a reasonable middle ground.  Of course the problem then for a politician is that NO ONE likes you.

This bill egregiously fails to look at the fact that we’re still drilling in the first place. We could place a few square miles each of solar panels in the Mojave desert, wind turbines in Tornado Alley, and geothermal plants in Texas and never have to drill again.

Sure, people in the filthy energy industry would lose jobs, for a short bit of time, but those losses will only be simple growing pains during the conversion to a booming clean energy economy.

Okay—And when is the Prez going to put a public foot down on the violation of 1st and 4th amendments of people in the Gulf? When is he going to address the abuse of the Critical Infrastructure clause by Homeland Security and the DoD? Obama has been a profoundly disappointing “leader”.

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This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Gulf Oil Spill

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf has had untold health, economic and environmental effects.

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