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Aug 16, 2010 8:20 PM by Chris Welty

US is Toughening Scrutiny of Deepwater Drilling

WASHINGTON (AP) - The government said Monday it is toughening
environmental reviews for all new deepwater oil drilling, ending an
easy path to oil riches that allowed BP to drill its blown-out well
in the Gulf of Mexico with little federal scrutiny.
The step is meant to help redress a history of lax oversight
leading up to the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers and led
to the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Some 206 million gallons
spilled into the Gulf before BP stopped the leak at the Macondo
well.
A report by the White House Council on Environmental Quality
found that decades-old data provided the basis for exempting BP's
drilling permits from any extensive environmental review.
Now the Interior Department is banning such "categorical
exclusions" for deepwater drilling reviews, at least until it
investigates how the exemptions are granted.
"Our decision-making must be fully informed by an understanding
of the potential environmental consequences of federal actions
permitting offshore oil and gas development," Interior Secretary
Ken Salazar said in a statement.
For now, new deepwater drilling is under a temporary moratorium
in the Gulf. Once that's lifted, though, Interior's new policy is
likely to make it much more time-consuming for oil companies to
move forward with new deepwater projects, since environmental
assessments will be required along the way.
Such assessments typically include a discussion of the need for
the project and a look at its environmental impacts, mitigation and
possible alternatives, among other things. They are a step short of
a full-blown "environmental impact statement" that would include
a more in-depth study of environmental impacts and allow more time
for public comment. An environmental assessment can determine
whether an environmental impact statement is needed.
Shallow-water drilling will also be subjected to stricter
environmental scrutiny under the new policy.
BP's ability to get environmental exemptions from the Minerals
Management Service led to some of the harshest criticism of the
now-defunct agency.
The report by the Council on Environmental Quality sheds new
light on the granting of those categorical exclusions. The report
says that the exclusions BP operated under were written in 1981 and
1986. That was long before the boom in deepwater drilling that was
propelled by the development of dramatic new technologies for
reaching deep into the sea floor.
The report also finds other problems with how the Minerals
Management Service applied environmental laws in reviewing the BP
project. It notes, for example, that in assessing the likelihood of
a major spill, MMS did not consider the example of the disastrous
1979 Ixtoc spill in the Gulf - simply because the spill was not in
U.S. waters.
MMS' successor agency, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management,
Enforcement and Regulation, is agreeing to the report's
recommendations to try to improve gas and oil drilling oversight,
including pushing for more time to review exploration plans, and
performing more comprehensive site-specific environmental reviews.
The American Petroleum Institute said Interior's new rules on
environmental reviews could create unnecessary delays without added
environmental protection.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural
Resources Committee, applauded the steps announced by Salazar while
calling for more far-reaching reform. The Center for Biological
Diversity welcomed the announcement but found it lacking, saying
that ongoing projects that might have been approved under faulty
processes would not necessarily be subject to additional scrutiny.
The announcement came as the fall shrimping season opened Monday
in Louisiana's coastal waters, a step toward normalcy for coastal
towns that have seen their vital fisheries closed for four months.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, leading the government's
oil-spill response, said it will take at least a week to
permanently plug the well with mud and cement once he gives the
go-ahead for the "bottom kill." He said he is not sure when that
will happen, because scientists are working on ways to perform the
kill without further damaging the well.

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