Agency faulted over handling of Alaska offshore oil drilling


The federal agency responsible for overseeing oil drilling near the coast of Alaska was rebuked by government overseers Wednesday for failing to share potentially important environmental information with all staffers drafting policy on oil and gas development.

The Government Accountability Office, in a report to Congress, also criticized the federal Minerals Management Service’s Alaska office for failing to adopt a set of comprehensive guidelines for determining whether proposed developments comply with federal environmental law.

Reviewers found that much data on proposed oil development -- some of which oil companies consider proprietary -- is distributed only on a “need to know” basis and doesn’t reach all staff analysts reviewing projects.

Several agency staffers, for example, said they had trouble getting detailed information on what development scenarios were being contemplated for Alaska’s salmon-rich Bristol Bay.

One staffer said he was not even certain where a pipeline to deliver the oil would be located, nor had he been told what other infrastructure might have to be built. Yet in many cases these were the analysts who would determine whether additional environmental studies were needed, the GAO found.

President Obama announced last week that Bristol Bay would be off-limits to oil and gas leasing, but the administration determined that exploration underway in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas may continue.

The GAO cited an internal e-mail, originally brought to light by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, in which a former staff biologist warned that offshore development could allow nonnative species to invade Alaskan waters, yet the concern was found to merit “no further examination.”

The environmental group has also publicized a 2007 internal Minerals Management Service e-mail in which a former agency polar bear biologist warned that large bear populations “are likely to be greased if there is an oil spill” in Arctic waters.

“Absence of a process . . . for how MMS staff is to review scientific findings and document these reviews has subjected MMS to allegations of scientific misconduct,” the GAO said.

The Minerals Management Service said that it was working to develop a comprehensive set of environmental compliance guidelines and that it would “take appropriate steps” to make sure all information is fully shared within the agency.