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Oil companies push for status quo on environmental regulations for deep-water drilling rigs

Oil and gas companies have told the Obama administration that environmental regulations for deep-water drilling rigs do not immediately need to be toughened because the Deepwater Horizon explosion was an unforeseeable event, not a failure of federal oversight, according to documents filed last week with the White House.

The industry’s chief lobbying arm, the American Petroleum Institute, submitted written comments to the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The council is reviewing whether the federal Minerals Management Service — the now-splintered and much criticized agency charged with regulating oil drilling — has appropriately conducted reviews mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA.

“One accident does not mean that the practice and procedures of MMS are inadequate to implement NEPA’s requirements, especially when the cause of the accident has yet to be determined,” wrote the lobbying group, which represents 400 oil and gas companies, including BP.

Anadarko Petroleum, which owns a quarter share of the leaking BP well, wrote in a separate filing that it believes the government’s enforcement of environmental laws has not “in any way played a role” in the Gulf of Mexico spill.

Since the April 20 explosion, the MMS has drawn fire from environmentalists for routinely exempting hundreds of offshore drilling projects from detailed environmental analysis, including the one for the Deepwater Horizon rig. The practice is known as granting “categorical exclusions.” That practice is a specific focus of the White House review.

President Obama has assailed the “cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill,” referring to the MMS. He said his administration would close loopholes that allow oil companies to bypass environmental reviews.

Last month, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that he would break MMS into three arms, separating environmental reviews from drilling leasing. Salazar this week appointed former Justice Department Inspector General Michael R. Bromwich to oversee the restructuring.

Before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the MMS had all but ruled out the possibility of a catastrophic spill on any gulf rig, calculating that there was only a 3% to 5% chance of a blowout exceeding a total of 1,000 barrels.

Scientists estimate that the busted BP well is gushing up to 60,000 barrels a day.

The service based those risk assessment calculations on decades of drilling precedent, which indicated that major blowouts were rare. It failed to update those calculations to reflect the increased technological hurdles and blowout dangers of deep-water drilling, which proliferated in the late 1990s.

MMS officials said last month that they trusted the oil industry to develop new deep-water drilling techniques.

In their comments to the White House, the lobbying group and Anadarko defended the MMS’s risk calculations and its use of categorical exclusions. They suggested that eliminating categorical exclusions would burden drilling companies with another level of bureaucracy.

They implored the White House to delay issuing any new NEPA rules for drilling.

“The current process provides ample opportunity for both public input and review of the potential environmental consequences” of drilling, Anadarko wrote.

Paired with other industry filings presented to the White House’s environmental quality council before the April 20 disaster, the oil industry comments show almost no change in their posture on environmental oversight.

In a September 2009 letter to an Obama administration task force reviewing ocean use policies, BP said “effective controls are in place and being enforced to appropriately manage water resources in the ocean.”

The company warned against implementing “new designations such as protected areas or oversight groups that duplicate, add layers to or undermine current regulation, and that limit or discourage industrial use and development without significant benefit to marine ecology or national priorities.”

BP’s letter was echoed by oil industry trade groups. In statements made by American Petroleum Institute Senior Policy Advisor Lakeisha Harrison in August and October 2009, the trade group praised the existing MMS leasing program and resisted changes to ocean management that could restrict drilling.

The Chamber of Shipping of America, which counts ConocoPhillips and Chevron Shipping Co. as members, also voiced concerns.

The oceans policy task force has not yet released its final report. The public comment period for the White House review of MMS environmental regulation procedures was scheduled to close Thursday.

Asked about the oil industry filings, the communications director for the Council on Environmental Quality, Christine Glunz, said on Thursday that the council “receives input from a wide variety of people and interests and considers all comments we receive while developing new policy approaches.”

jtankersley@latimes.com

jenmartinez@tribune.com


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