Bleeding Gulf Is Evidence of Corruption in Oil Drilling Oversight

President must step in to prevent Arctic from being next victim

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Revelations flooding out of the Gulf oil spill disaster provide damning evidence about the main federal agency tasked with regulating offshore oil leases. Corrupted by its closeness to the oil industry and lax oversight from political leaders, the Minerals Management Service allowed British Petroleum to drill under risk-heavy circumstances, in waters too fragile to sustain a major spill, without an adequate plan to keep a spill from being catastrophic.

Sec. of Interior Ken Salazar is taking small steps to address the inherent conflicts of interest that have crippled the MMS mission, but much more is needed. Most immediately, decisions MMS already has made must be dealt with — especially with regard to the Arctic Ocean.

Direct intervention from the president and the secretary of interior are needed to prevent the potential for another Gulf disaster from spreading to America’s Arctic Ocean, where Shell Oil—with a plan approved by the MMS —is poised to begin drilling this summer. If you think you’ve heard the president say that there will be no new drilling until the cause of the Gulf blow-out is understood, think again. So far, there has been no reconsideration of the permits to drill in the Arctic this summer.

The reasons for intervention are twofold. First, marine scientists agree that drilling’s impacts on the Arctic Ocean have yet to be adequately studied. The Chukchi and Beaufort seas, where the drilling would take place, are among the world’s most remarkably wild places; home to many animals, fish, and the native people who depend on them. We have a responsibility to ensure that these American treasures won’t be spoiled in the event of a large oil spill like the one unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico.

This is particularly true because an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean’s icy waters, far from significant infrastructure, would be much more difficult to stop, contain and clean up than a spill in the temperate and accessible Gulf of Mexico.

Second, MMS is supposed to thoroughly review drilling proposals to ensure they comply with environmental laws and that detailed plans are in place to deal with possible accidents. Shell—like BP in the Gulf of Mexico—downplayed the likelihood of a spill in its drilling plans.

Right now, we don’t have assurance that Shell—or any company—can effectively contain an Arctic spill. MMS never required Shell to submit a plan of what it would do if its drill rig, which the company says it would use to respond to a major oil spill, was disabled, as happened in the Gulf. In light of the Gulf spill, Shell is scrambling to come up with its version of a plan.

And no analysis was done of the likely effects of a spill from Shell’s drilling in Arctic waters on wildlife or Alaska Natives, who have long warned—based on their intimate familiarity with the region—that an Arctic oil spill would be disastrous. Without much better spill response plans that prove Shell could clean up spilled oil in the Arctic, more scientific data, a full assessment of impacts, and a full investigation of the failures that led to the Gulf spill the Obama administration must prevent Shell’s Arctic drilling plans from going forward.

Back in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s abundantly clear that having response plans at the ready is critical to swiftly and effectively containing a spill. BP has been struggling for a month to stop its hemorrhaging deepwater well, which has fouled the Gulf’s waters with hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil a day. The company’s obvious lack of preparation for dealing with the catastrophe is attributable in part to the fact that MMS waived key requirements for oil spill response strategies in BP’s plan to drill.

Most frightening, the rubber-stamped BP permit isn’t one-of-a-kind. In 2008, MMS sent a notice instructing oil companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico to not bother submitting worst-case oil spill scenarios and response plans in their drilling plans. Earlier this week, Earthjustice filed suit to challenge these unlawful exemptions, which may have been given to as many as 60 additional Gulf of Mexico drilling plans.

MMS’s "anything goes" drilling policy is a serious national threat, and the stain on their reputation is indelible. Charged with collecting billions of dollars in annual royalties on offshore oil drilling permits as well as ensuring drilling complies with environmental safeguards, MMS is a bit like a casino owner who’s also responsible for helping gamblers beat their addiction to gambling.

President Obama has endorsed plans to divide the hopelessly compromised agency into separate entities. But, while reorganizing MMS may be a small step in the right direction, we need much more significant reform to change the laws and regulatory agencies that govern offshore drilling. We must focus on balanced management of the ocean ecosystem rather than a rush to drill. We should not sacrifice the very ecosystems we depend on in pursuit of ever more fossil fuels.

Our energy future will not be found by Shell and BP in coastal waters, but rather in a national embrace of real, 21st century solutions that promote conservation, invest in clean renewable energy, protect our natural heritage, and wean us off of coal and oil. Success in these efforts—a national imperative—may be the crowning achievement of this century.

Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”