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NYT: Oil Regulators Routinely Violated Environmental Laws, Muzzled Scientists

You knew this was coming. It’s been obvious that Minerals Management Service’s ability to continue permitting offshore drilling depended on their rubber stamping the industry line that drilling could occur safely and without environmental impacts. The question was, where were all the government engineers and environmental scientists who knew better?

The New York Times has found the inevitable answer: they were muzzled by pro-industry managers up and down the Administration and afraid to speak out or lose their jobs.

The New York Times reports that for years, the MMS has not even bothered to require the necessary permits from BP and other major offshore drillers, even though government scientists were reporting major safety concerns, likely environmental impacts and threats to endangered species:

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.

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 harmed.

As expected much of the problem is traced to the industry capture and muzzling of scientists in the Bush Administration:

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.”

But these problems persist today:

In 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 rest of the Times article is equally devastating. . . , showing a pattern of ignoring warnings of known safety hazards and risks of catastrophic accidents, with scientists talking to the Times under anonymity. And yet, the Times Reports, MMS has continued to issue permits even after Secretary Salazar claimed there was a moratorium pending a review of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. This Alaska project is now pending.

This morning, we’re told President Obama will tell the media how angry he is about the the BP Oil Disaster. It will be interesting to see if he directs any of his “anger” at his own appointees, including the Secretary of the Interior. Because the whistle blowers are talking to reporters, too late and still afraid, but it’s just the beginning.

The Administration has a general policy of “looking forward,” unwilling to expose misconduct and criminal behavior from the prior administration, while committing to do better going forward. It’s clear that’s not possible until the Administration cleans house and holds people accountable. Meanwhile, the Gulf and Gulf states are paying a terrible price for a lesson yet to be learned.

Update:
Times Picayune: Seven Hours of data missing from Horizon just before explosion; but UC Berkeley Prof. has been reviewing a collection of eyewitness accounts.

More:
The Nature Conservancy, Alabama: What this spill could do to coastal marshes
McClatchy, US Agency let industry write offshore drilling rules; Since spill, Feds have given 27 waivers to oil companies in Gulf
Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Testimony from environmental officials and advocates (pdf files)
WaPo/Julie Eilperin, MMS ignores environmental permits
NO Times Picayune ongoing coverage, maps, pictures, diagrams

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley