Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at press conference May 5, 2010. (source: U.S. Coast Guard via Flickr)

The New York Times has been tracking the Mineral Management Service’s compliance with the moratorium on new OCS/Gulf drilling permits announced by President Obama and Interior Secretary Salazar.

Their finding: MMS continues to issue new drilling and related permits, as well as environmental waivers that assume no environmental impact on activities just like those which resulted in the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. But MMS and Interior pretend these newly permitted activities are exempt, grandfathered or different. From the Times:

In the days since President Obama announced a moratorium on permits for drilling new offshore wells and a halt to a controversial type of environmental waiver that was given to the Deepwater Horizon, at least seven new drilling permits and five waivers have been granted, according to records.

The records also indicate that since the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, federal regulators have granted at least 19 environmental waivers for gulf drilling projects and at least 17 drilling permits, most of which were for types of work like that on the Deepwater Horizon shortly before it exploded, pouring a ceaseless current of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Asked about the permits and waivers, officials at the Department of Interior and the Minerals Management Service, which regulates drilling, pointed to public statements by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, reiterating that the agency had no intention of stopping all new oil and gas production in the gulf.

It’s not surprising that there would have been ongoing activities at previously permitted wells that would be “grandfathered,” even though even those should have been reexmined, because the so-called “moratorium” was supposed to apply to “new permits.” But apparently MMS and Dept of Interior are stretching that concept beyond recognition to minimize the moratorium’s scope.

And Salazar told Congress he’s required by law to grant permits under a 30-day statutory requirement. Apparently, the nation’s executive branch does not have the emergency power necessary to deal with known threats to public and environmental safety.

“We’re also closing the loophole that has allowed some oil companies to bypass some critical environmental reviews,” he added in reference to the environmental waivers.

But records indicated that regulators continued granting the environmental waivers and permits for types of work like that occurring on the Deepwater Horizon. . . .

None of the projects that have recently been granted environmental waivers have started drilling.

However, these waivers have been especially troublesome to environmentalists because they were provided through a special legal provision that is supposed to be limited to projects that present minimal or no risk to the environment.

At least six of the drilling projects that have been given waivers in the past four weeks are for waters that are deeper — and therefore more difficult and dangerous — than where Deepwater Horizon was operating. While that rig, which was drilling at a depth just shy of 5,000 feet, was classified as a deep-water operation, many of the wells in the six projects are classified as “ultra” deep water, including four new wells at over 9,100 feet.

In testifying before Congress on May 18, Mr. Salazar and officials from his agency said they recognized the problems with the waivers and they intended to try to rein them in. But Mr. Salazar also said that he was limited by a statutory requirement that he said obligated his agency to process drilling requests within 30 days after they have been submitted.

“That is what has driven a number of the categorical exclusions that have been given over time in the gulf,” he said.

With, uh, all due respect, Mr. Secretary, this reeks of bad faith and deliberately misleading the public, not to mention executive malfeasance in continuing to allow an agency both you and the President described as operating outside the law to risk endangerment of the public and environment. If the original permits were granted through waivers that did not comply with NEPA, then rescind them.

At a minimum, a moratorium on safety-affected activities to assure full compliance should apply to every activity, previously permitted or not, that involves such critical stages as securing/cementing off a new well and for which the reliability of those measures, the Blowout protector and other critical safety and mitigation features has not yet been confirmed.

The Secretary of the Interior is telling us the executive branch is powerless to stop now demonstrated potential threats to public safety by oil rig operators whose initial permits likely never complied with the nation’s environmental and safety statutes in the first place. If anything, Interior and MMS should be pushing to expand the reach of this essential safety check, not minimize it.

Is there any accountability in this Administration? Because this shell game should get some people fired.



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.

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