The federal Minerals
Management Service gave permission to BP and
dozens of other oil
companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without first getting required
permits from another agency that assesses threats to endangered species —
and despite strong warnings from that agency about the impact the
drilling was likely to have on the gulf.
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
A brown pelican flew Thursday past protective booms
surrounding the Breton National Wildlife Reserve in the Gulf of Mexico.
Those approvals, federal records show, include one for the well drilled
by the Deepwater Horizon rig, which exploded on April 20, killing 11
workers and resulting in thousands of barrels of oil spilling into the
gulf each day.
The Minerals Management Service, or M.M.S., also
routinely overruled its staff biologists and engineers who raised
concerns about the safety and the environmental impact of certain
drilling proposals in the gulf and in Alaska, according to a half-dozen
current and former agency scientists.
Those scientists said they were also regularly pressured by agency
officials to change the findings of their internal studies if they
predicted that an accident was likely to occur or if wildlife might be
Under the Endangered Species
Act and the Marine Mammal
Protection Act, the Minerals Management Service is required to get
permits to allow drilling where it might harm endangered species or
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is partly
responsible for protecting endangered species and marine mammals. It has
said on repeated
occasions that drilling in the gulf affects these animals, but the
minerals agency since January 2009 has approved at least three huge
lease sales, 103 seismic blasting projects and 346 drilling plans.
Agency records also show that permission for those projects and plans
was granted without getting the permits required under federal law.
“M.M.S. has given up any pretense of regulating the offshore oil
industry,” said Kierán Suckling, director of the Center for
Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group in Tucson,
which filed notice of intent to sue the agency over its noncompliance
with federal law concerning endangered species. “The agency seems to
think its mission is to help the oil industry evade environmental laws.”
Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, said her
agency had full consultations with NOAA about endangered species in the
gulf. But she declined to respond to additional questions about whether
her agency had obtained the relevant permits.
Federal records indicate that these consultations ended with NOAA
instructing the minerals agency that continued drilling in the gulf was
harming endangered marine mammals and that the agency needed to get
permits to be in compliance with federal law.
Responding to the accusations that agency scientists were being
silenced, Ms. Barkoff added, “Under the previous administration, there
was a pattern of suppressing science in decisions, and we are working
very hard to change the culture and empower scientists in the Department
of the Interior.”
On Tuesday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar
announced plans to reorganize the minerals agency to improve its
regulatory role by separating safety oversight from the division that
collects royalties from oil and gas companies. But that reorganization
is not likely to have any bearing on how and whether the agency seeks
required permits from other agencies like NOAA.
Criticism of the minerals agency has grown in recent days as more
information has emerged about how it handled drilling in the gulf.
a letter from September 2009, obtained by The New York Times, NOAA
accused the minerals agency of a pattern of understating the likelihood
and potential consequences of a major spill in the gulf and understating
the frequency of spills that have already occurred there.
The letter accuses the agency of highlighting the safety of offshore oil
drilling operations while overlooking more recent evidence to the
contrary. The data used by the agency to justify its approval of
drilling operations in the gulf play down the fact that spills have been
increasing and understate the “risks and impacts of accidental spills,”
the letter states. NOAA declined several requests for comment.
The accusation that the minerals agency has ignored risks is also being
levied by scientists working for the agency.
Managers at the agency have routinely overruled staff scientists whose
findings highlight the environmental risks of drilling, according to a
half-dozen current or former agency scientists.
The scientists, none of whom wanted to be quoted by name for fear of
reprisals by the agency or by those in the industry, said they had
repeatedly had their scientific findings changed to indicate no
environmental impact or had their calculations of spill risks
“You simply are not allowed to conclude that the drilling will have an
impact,” said one scientist who has worked for the minerals agency for
more than a decade. “If you find the risks of a spill are high or you
conclude that a certain species will be affected, your report gets
disappeared in a desk drawer and they find another scientist to redo it
or they rewrite it for you.”
Another biologist who left the agency in 2005 after more than five years
said that agency officials went out of their way to accommodate the oil
and gas industry.
He said, for example, that seismic activity from drilling can have a
devastating effect on mammals and fish, but that agency officials rarely
enforced the regulations meant to limit those effects.
He also said the agency routinely ceded to the drilling companies the
responsibility for monitoring species that live or spawn near the
“What I observed was M.M.S. was trying to undermine the monitoring and
mitigation requirements that would be imposed on the industry,” he said.
Aside from allowing BP and other companies to drill in the gulf without
getting the required permits from NOAA, the minerals agency has also
given BP and other drilling companies in the gulf blanket exemptions
from having to provide environmental impact statements.
Much as BP’s drilling plan asserted that there was no chance of an oil
spill, the company also claimed in federal documents that its
drilling would not have any adverse effect on endangered species.
The gulf is known for its biodiversity. Various endangered species are
found in the area where the Deepwater Horizon was drilling, including
sperm whales, blue whales and fin whales.
In some instances, the minerals agency has indeed sought and received
permits in the gulf to harm certain endangered species like green and
loggerhead sea turtles. But the agency has not received these permits
for endangered species like the sperm and humpback whales, which are
more common in the areas where drilling occurs and thus are more likely
to be affected.
Tensions between scientists and managers at the agency erupted in one
case last year involving a rig in the gulf called the BP Atlantis. An
agency scientist complained to his bosses of catastrophic safety and
environmental violations. The scientist said these complaints were
ignored, so he took his concerns to higher officials at the Interior
“The purpose of this letter is to restate in writing our concern that
the BP Atlantis project presently poses a threat of serious, immediate,
potentially irreparable and catastrophic harm to the waters of the Gulf
of Mexico and its marine environment, and to summarize how BP’s conduct
has violated federal law and regulations,” Kenneth Abbott, the agency
in a letter to officials at the Interior Department that was dated
The letter added: “From our conversation on the phone, we understand
that M.M.S. is already aware that undersea manifolds have been leaking
and that major flow lines must already be replaced. Failure of this
critical undersea equipment has potentially catastrophic environmental
Almost two months before the Deepwater Horizon exploded, Representative Raúl M.
Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona, sent a letter to the agency raising
concerns about the BP Atlantis and questioning its oversight of the rig.
After the disaster, Mr. Salazar said he would delay granting any new oil
But the minerals agency has issued at least five
final approval permits to new drilling projects in the gulf since
last week, records show.
Despite being shown records indicating otherwise, Ms. Barkoff said her
agency had granted no new permits since Mr. Salazar made his
Other agencies besides NOAA have begun criticizing the minerals agency.
At a public hearing in Louisiana this week, a joint panel of Coast Guard
and Minerals Management Service officials investigating the explosion
grilled minerals agency officials for allowing the offshore drilling industry to be essentially
“self-certified,” as Capt. Hung Nguyen of the Coast Guard, a
co-chairman of the investigation, put it.
In addition to the minerals agency and the Coast Guard, the Deepwater
Horizon was overseen by the Marshall Islands, the “flag of convenience”
under which it was registered.
No one from the Marshall Islands ever inspected the rig. The
nongovernmental organizations that did were paid by the rig’s operator,
in this case Transocean.
This article has been revised to reflect the
Correction: May 15, 2010
A previous version of this article misidentified the
government agency where Kendra Barkoff is a spokeswoman. She is with the
Interior Department, not the Minerals Management Service.
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