Soon after it became apparent the BP blowout would create a huge oil disaster, President Obama and Interior Secretary Salazar announced a moratorium on issuing further permits for deepwater drilling in the Gulf, pending (at least) a 30-day review by Salazar of the safety implications of the blowout.

Today, after the New York Times reported numerous permits and environmental review exemptions were still being issued by Minerals Management Service for new drilling activities notwithstanding the moratorium, the White House explained the word "moratorium" doesn’t mean what you think it means.

At today’s White House Presser, White House Energy and Climate Change Policy Director Carol Browner told reporters the "moratorium" only applied to operations undertaken by applicants who were not already engaged in permitted drilling activities, but it did not apply to new or additional drilling activities at the already permitted sites, even if they required a "permit." Those approvals, she explained, were not "permits," they were "modifications."

Oh. So, if a previously permitted project needed a new/additional permit to change its drilling plans, because the original well ran into a problem and the operators needed to drill another/different well, that new drilling activity could still get a permit; the moratorium wouldn’t apply because that’s not a new permit; it’s a "modification."

Well, that’s one way to frame a "grandfather" exception to a moratorium, but that’s hardly what the public was [mis]led to believe. The public would have assumed that our government was not going to allow further activities like those leading to this catastrophe until, as the President put it, we had "assurances" that it could be done safely. But now they tell us that’s not what they meant.

But the question is, why didn’t they mean that? If a driller still needs to go through all of the inherently risky final drilling, casing, cementing, plugging, etc that were implicated in the Horizon blowout, wouldn’t those be precisely the activities you’d want to suspend until you knew it could be done safely?

To see the absurdity of the Administration’s definition of a moratorium on "new permits," but not "modifications," recall what the Times story reported about what the Deepwater Horizon rig was doing: [my bold]

Among the types of drilling permits that the minerals agency is still granting are called bypass permits. These allow an operator to drill around a mechanical problem in the original hole to the original target from the existing wellbore.

Five days before the explosion, the Deepwater Horizon requested and received a revised bypass permit, which was the last drilling permit the rig received from the minerals agency before the explosion. The bore was created and it was the faulty cementing or plugging of that hole that has been cited as one of the causes of the explosion.

In other words, the actions that led to BP’s catastrophic blowout, explosion and spill were all undertaken under a permit ["modication"] the Administration now says is exempt from the moratorium. So if a catastrophe had occurred at a different, previously approved well, instead of on Deepwater Horizon, and a moratorium had been imposed in response to that other disaster, the Administration’s so called "moratorium" would still have allowed a permit to the Deepwater Horizon activities that caused the real catastrophe.

Or to put it another way, the MMS is continuing to issue new permits to drillers to engage in further new activities that are identical to risky activities that led to the BP oil disaster. That’s essentially what the Times reported, but now we have the Administration admitting this absurd and reckless policy is exactly what they meant when they misled the public about a "moratorium."

Why has no one been fired for this?

Whoa: Just heard Energy Secretary Chu tell Rachel Maddow that "personally, I think we should stop all new drilling, whether its preapproved or whatever, until we get to the bottom of this." (Video here.) Finally, an honest man.

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In a similar vein, during a Congressional hearing to address why MMS was issuing OCS drilling permits without full compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, Salazar also promised to change the policy of granting categorical exemptions from preparing environmental impact statements. The message seemed to be there would be a moratorium on further permits until Minerals and Management Service (MMS) made necessary changes in its NEPA process to assur full consideration of possible impacts and mitigation in the event of a serious blowout. Apparently, that too is inoperable.

More:
Times-Picayune, Government can’t push BP aside from oil spill response, Thad Allen says

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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

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