Gulf and Environmental Groups React to Congressional Letter Calling on Interior Department to End Rubber Stamping of Offshore Oil Drilling Projects

Letter comes on eve of the 14th anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill


Jackson Chiappinelli, 585-402-2005,

Gulf and national environmental groups praised members of Congress who sent a letter today calling on the Department of Interior to end its routine practice of rubber-stamping offshore oil drilling projects by skipping over meaningful environmental reviews.

The members, Representatives Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-CA), and Jared Huffman (D-CA) specifically called on the Interior Department to retire its use of the “categorical exclusion” for offshore oil-and-gas development. The decades-old policy allows the government to exempt oil companies from undergoing environmental reviews for exploration and development plans for proposed offshore drilling projects.

The Interior Department’s most notorious use of the definite exclusion policy was for British Petroleum’s (BP) Deepwater Horizon oil project. In 2010, the oil company’s drilling rig suffered a blowout, taking the lives of 11 people and spilling 5 million barrels of oil (the most in history) that devastated the environment, Gulf communities, and local economies. Ultimately, BP’s oil spill cost $17.2 billion in damage. The catastrophic BP Deepwater Horizon infrastructure failure and resulting oil spill will mark its 14th anniversary on April 20.

The Members of Congress point out that, following the recommendations of the National Commission that investigated the causes of the BP disaster, the Interior Department under the Obama administration was on its way to discontinuing the use of the categorical exclusion for offshore oil and gas development. However, the Trump administration reversed course, and the fast-tracking policy for offshore drilling continues to be routinely used.

The Interior Department has avoided meaningful environmental reviews for over 90% of oil development plans (560 out of 600) submitted in the most recent five-year period for which we have data, 2018-2022, including many in ultra-deep waters where operations are most precarious.

Offshore drilling operations have only become riskier since 2010. The Gulf of Mexico (where 97 percent of U.S. offshore oil and gas is produced) has warmed even faster than the world’s oceans, testing the resilience of ecosystems already made vulnerable by oil and gas activities and resulting in increasingly powerful hurricanes that can upend infrastructure.

Last summer, Gulf and national environmental groups petitioned Interior, calling on the Department to sunset its categorical exclusion policy for offshore oil and gas development. The groups, which are still awaiting a response, responded to today’s Congressional letter:

“Our nation’s environmental laws are in place to help protect people and the environment from harm, not to be skirted to facilitate something as dirty and dangerous as offshore drilling,” said Marti Collins, Healthy Gulf Executive Director. “Our federal agencies should be ensuring something like the Deepwater Horizon tragedy never happens again, not fast-tracking more exploration and development without scrutiny: the people of the Gulf deserve it.”

“In New Orleans, I watched with disbelief as the sky filled with smoke after Deepwater Horizon exploded, and fourteen years later, I am disturbed nothing has changed.” said Kristen Schlemmer, Sr. Legal Director & Waterkeeper for Bayou City Waterkeeper, a Houston-based non-profit. “The Gulf coast is my home, and it isn’t fair that we’re treated like a sacrifice zone. The Interior Department has power here, and I urge it to act and end its use of the ‘categorical exclusion’ for offshore oil-and-gas development.”

“Earthjustice applauds the Members of Congress who have called on the Interior Department to finally retire its reckless policy of fast-tracking offshore oil projects at the expense of Gulf communities, fragile ecosystems, and vulnerable species,” said Earthjustice Senior Legislative Representative Laura M. Esquivel. “Every time the government approves another offshore oil project without a meaningful environmental review, it rolls the dice, hoping there will not be another BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. The Interior Department should heed the calls of Gulf communities and Members of Congress to end this reckless practice immediately.”

“When we allow corporations to skirt crucial environmental review processes, it’s only a matter of time until disaster strikes,” said Nicole Ghio, Senior Fossil Fuels Program Manager at Friends of the Earth. It’s time for the Interior to put people over profits and close the categorical exclusion loophole before the next oil spill disaster — another BP Deepwater Disaster — devastates the Gulf and coastal communities.”

“The BP Deepwater Horizon disaster was a clear warning of the risks associated with fast-tracking offshore drilling exploration and development plans,” said Valerie Cleland, Senior Ocean Advocate at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “The Department of the Interior should listen to Congress and end the irresponsible use of categorical exclusions.”

“When I saw firsthand how devastating the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster was to Gulf marine life, I never dreamed the oil industry would still be getting a free pass for more drilling 14 years later,” said Brady Bradshaw, senior oceans campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Instead of waiving environmental reviews for projects that will inevitably lead to more deadly oil spills, we owe it to the endangered species in the Gulf like sea turtles and Rice’s whales to crack down on industry handouts and swiftly phase out offshore drilling.”

“For too long, categorical exclusions have allowed the oil and gas industry to damage public resources and put communities at risk from environmental disasters,” said Pete Stauffer, Ocean Protection Manager at Surfrider Foundation. “It’s high time the U.S. ends the practice of rubber stamping offshore drilling projects without sufficient environmental reviews. Doing so will help ensure that we avoid another Deepwater Horizon disaster off U.S. coasts.”

“The anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill is another humbling reminder of the harm continued offshore oil and gas drilling poses to our ocean, climate, ecosystems, and communities,” said Sarah Guy, Executive Director of Ocean Defense Initiative. “We are grateful to the Members of Congress calling for BOEM to end the use of categorical exclusions, which increase the chances of another devastating oil spill and undermine critical ocean protections.”

A brown pelican covered in oil sits on the Louisiana coast in June 2010. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon has affected wildlife throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
A brown pelican covered in oil sits on the Louisiana coast in June 2010. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon has affected wildlife throughout the Gulf of Mexico. (Charlie Riedel / AP)

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