July 6, 2010

Is there really any question that federal agencies let the oil companies write their own rules? Because clearly, no one ever said no to them:

The federal agency charged with protecting endangered species like the brown pelican and the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle signed off on the Minerals Management Service’s conclusion that deepwater drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico posed no significant risk to wildlife, despite evidence that a spill of even moderate size could be disastrous, according to federal documents.

By law, the minerals service, before selling oil leases in the gulf, must submit an evaluation of the potential biological impact on threatened species to the Fish and Wildlife Service, whose responsibilities include protecting endangered species on land. Although the wildlife agency cannot block lease sales, it can ask for changes in the assessment if it believes it is inadequate, or it can insist on conducting its own survey of potential threats, something the agency has frequently done in the past.

But in a letter dated Sept. 14, 2007, and obtained by The New York Times, the wildlife agency agreed with the minerals service’s characterization that the chances that deepwater drilling would result in a spill that would pollute critical habitat was “low.”

The agency signed off on the minerals service’s biological evaluation, even though that assessment considered only the risks to wildlife based on spills of 1,000 to 15,000 barrels — a minuscule amount compared with the hundreds of thousands of barrels now spewing into the gulf. The assessment also noted that even such modest spills carried up to a 27 percent risk of oil reaching the critical habitat for some endangered species.

Much of the first wave of criticism over the federal government’s part in the Deepwater Horizon disaster has focused on the dual role of the Minerals Management Service (renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement last month), which was responsible for both promoting offshore drilling through the sale of leases and for policing it. But environmental groups were also critical of other federal agencies that have watchdog roles and could have exercised their authority to protect the species.

“The Endangered Species Act requires caution, but federal wildlife agencies allowed offshore oil drilling to play Russian roulette with endangered species in the gulf,” said Daniel J. Rohlf, the clinical director of the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center at Lewis & Clark Law School.

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