U.S. Oversight of Deepwater Horizon Rig Questioned

Federal regulators are being faulted for their oversight of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico just over two weeks ago, killing 11 crew and spawning a massive oil spill that now threatens much of the U.S. Gulf coast.

According to an article in The Washington Post, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) gave Deepwater Horizon a “categorical exclusion” from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in April 2009. This allowed BP to forego a detailed environmental impact analysis of the rig. The exemption came after three MMS reviews of drilling in the central and western Gulf of Mexico concluded that a massive oil spill was unlikely.

Under NEPA, drillers must identify what could reduce a project’s environmental impact. BP’s exploration plan for its well – Lease 206 – calls the prospect of an oil spill “unlikely,” and stated that “no mitigation measures other than those required by regulation and BP policy will be employed to avoid, diminish or eliminate potential impacts on environmental resources,” the Post wrote. A 13-page environmental impact analysis included with the plan minimized the prospect of any serious damage associated with a spill.

BP spokesman Toby Odone told the Washington Post that the company’s appeal for NEPA waivers in the past “was based on the spill and incident-response history in the Gulf of Mexico.”

But Kierán Suckling, executive director of the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, told the Post that the federal waiver “put BP entirely in control” of the way it conducted its drilling. He said MMS oversight of the rig was “little more than rubber-stamping” of BP’s “self-serving” plans.

Just 11 days prior to the April 20 blast on Deepwater Horizon, BP was lobbying the White House Council on Environmental Quality to expand NEPA exemptions. According to The Washington Post, a letter dated April 6 from the company maintained that such exemptions should be used in situations where environmental damage is likely to be “minimal or non-existent.” An expansion in these waivers would help “avoid unnecessary paperwork and time delays,” the letter said.

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