WASHINGTON, DC – In conjunction with the announcement today that the Department of the Interior and the Council on Environmental Quality will review the Minerals Management Service's (MMS) procedures under the National Environmental Policy Act, Interior will also review the process through which offshore oil and gas operations are reviewed under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
“The BP oil spill has made even clearer the urgency and importance of Secretary Salazar's efforts to change the way the MMS has done business for too many years,” said Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff. “The President has ordered a review of environmental permitting processes for offshore oil and gas development, and we will carry out that review swiftly and responsibly. In coordination with other agencies, we will look at NEPA procedures as well as reviews required under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Where those processes can be improved, we will strengthen them. Where there are loopholes, we will close them. Secretary Salazar is committed to advancing our agenda of reform by fixing problems, overhauling broken regulatory structures, and restoring the rightful place of science in decision-making.”
For more information about reforms Secretary Salazar is leading, click here.
For more information about reforms and reviews that are under way in response to the BP oil spill, click here.
Q AND A ON 5/14/2010 NEW YORK TIMES STORY
Q. A May 14, 2010 New York Times story claims that records show that MMS has approved “at least five final approval permits to new drilling projects in the gulf since last week.” Is that accurate?
A. No. No permits for drilling new wells are going forward or have gone forward since Secretary Salazar's decision last week to halt permits for drilling new wells. MMS is continuing to review permits for activities such as closing and capping wells or activities that are necessary for the safe operation of existing production or exploration wells.
Q. Did MMS give permission to BP and other oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without getting permits from NOAA or FWS that are required under the Endangered Species Act or Marine Mammal Protection Act?
A. We are reviewing the issue as part of our examination of MMS's environmental review processes.
In 2007 MMS consulted, pursuant to the Endangered Species Act, with both the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) on the 5-year oil and gas plan, as required by law. FWS and NMFS may authorize activities that harm or “take” ESA listed species if the take occurs in connection with an “otherwise lawful activity.” FWS concurred that none of the species for which it has responsibility would be adversely affected and therefore no ESA take permit was required for species under FWS's jurisdiction. NMFS concluded that several species for which it has responsibility were likely to be “incidentally taken” (i.e., unintentionally disturbed or harmed), and authorized such incidental taking to the extent permitted by the ESA.
NMFS concluded that it could not require or issue incidental take permits for harm caused to animals by an oil spill because taking may only be authorized if it is incidental to an “otherwise lawful activity.” NMFS further concluded that the discharge of harmful quantities of oil is unlawful.
The biological opinion that NMFS issued also noted that it could not issue an authorization for the taking of endangered sperm whales incidental to seismic activities unless it was first authorized pursuant to the MMPA. NMFS noted that MMS had requested MMPA authorization in 2002 and that its request was still pending. When the MMPA authorization is granted, NMFS said it would revise its biological opinion to contain an ESA authorization as well.
Q. What is the New York Times story referring to in describing ‘strong warnings' by NOAA about the impact of drilling on the Gulf, and were those warnings not heeded?
In 2009, NOAA provided input on a draft proposal for future leasing activities. That draft proposal was for future oil leasing activities (2012 to 2017), not the current leasing program. It was prospective, with a special focus on Alaska and the Arctic. The Department of Interior took NOAA's concerns into account in the national offshore energy policy and the plan contains strong measures to protect both Alaska and the Arctic. For additional information regarding the memo, contact the Department of Commerce
Q. How did the Department of the Interior respond to whistle blower concerns about BP's Atlantis Project?
In April of 2009, a whistle blower filed a complaint under the federal ”False Claims Act” alleging that BP falsely certified safety records relating to BP's Atlantis Project. The Atlantis is a production platform located 190 miles south of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico in 7,050 feet of water. In January of this year, the parties agreed to a dismissal of the suit. On May 13, 2010, the whistle blower asked the court to reopen the case; the government does not intend to object to the request. In the meantime, MMS launched its own investigation into safety operations on the Atlantis. That investigation, which also responds to Congressional inquiries, is ongoing.
Q: The New York Times reports that, according to current and former agency scientists, managers at MMS routinely overruled staff scientists whose findings highlight the environmental risk of drilling. Is this correct?
A: The Department takes very seriously allegations of suppression of scientific findings. Employees are urged to bring all credible claims of deliberate wrong-going and suppression of science to the Department's Inspector General for thorough investigation.