Congress’ 30-Day Deadline for Rubber-Stamping Exploration Plans

The other day, when Sheldon Whitehouse asked Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar why BP had gotten an exemption from the full-blown NEPA process from which it presumably should have been categorically excluded, Salazar referenced a 30-day deadline from Congress to approve exploration plans.

Senator, there has been significant environmental review, including Environmental Impact Statements that has been conducted with respect to this activity in the Gulf of Mexico. It is an area where we know a lot about the environment, we know a lot about the infrastructure that is there. The question of the categorical exclusion in part relates to the Congressional 30-day requirement that MMS has to approve or disapprove an exploration plan. [my emphasis]

Mineral Management Service Director Elizabeth Birnbaum elaborated on this 30-day deadline on Wednesday.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act we’re required to examine the environmental impacts of any major federal actions, certainly the oil and gas leasing is a major federal action. We have conducted many Environmental Impact Statements before we get to the point of an individual well drilling decision. We conduct an EIS on the full 5-Year Plan for oil and gas drilling, We have conducted EIS on the lease sales in the Gulf and then separately in Alaska. We also conducted some separate Environmental Impact Reviews on leasing in the particular area–drilling in the particular area in the Mississippi Canyon here in the Gulf. When we get to the point of deciding on an individual exploration plan for a particular permit, we are under a statutory obligation under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to make a decision within 30 days. That very much limits our ability to conduct environmental reviews. Many of our environmental reviews are categorical exclusions. We review that to determine whether there’s a trigger for us to do a full Environmental Assessment, which we did actually on exploration plans for Arctic drilling. But we’re still limited to that 30-day decision, and we have to still make a decision on whether to go forward with an exploration plan within 30 days, which limits the amount of environmental review we can conduct. In the package that the Administration sent up to provide additional appropriations, we also asked to lift that limit in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to allow 90 days or more to provide more full analysis of exploration plans before drilling.

Here’s a history of the OCSLA. The 30-day requirement itself is described in the plan approval process of the OCSLA.

(1) Except as otherwise provided in this subchapter, prior to commencing exploration pursuant to any oil and gas lease issued or maintained under this subchapter, the holder thereof shall submit an exploration plan to the Secretary for approval. Such plan may apply to more than one lease held by a lessee in any one region of the outer Continental Shelf, or by a group of lessees acting under a unitization, pooling, or drilling agreement, and shall be approved by the Secretary if he finds that such plan is consistent with the provisions of this subchapter, regulations prescribed under this subchapter, including regulations prescribed by the Secretary pursuant to paragraph (8) of section 1334 (a) of this title, and the provisions of such lease. The Secretary shall require such modifications of such plan as are necessary to achieve such consistency. The Secretary shall approve such plan, as submitted or modified, within thirty days of its submission, except that the Secretary shall disapprove such plan if he determines that

(A) any proposed activity under such plan would result in any condition described in section 1334 (a)(2)(A)(i) of this title, and

(B) such proposed activity cannot be modified to avoid such condition. If the Secretary disapproves a plan under the preceding sentence, he may, subject to section 1334 (a)(2)(B) of this title, cancel such lease and the lessee shall be entitled to compensation in accordance with the regulations prescribed under section 1334 (a)(2)(C)(i) or (ii) of this title. [my emphasis]

And that sets the standard for rejecting an application in 1334 (a)(2)(A)(i) this way:

(i) continued activity pursuant to such lease or permit would probably cause serious harm or damage to life (including fish and other aquatic life), to property, to any mineral (in areas leased or not leased), to the national security or defense, or to the marine, coastal, or human environment;

Now, I would have to do a lot more review of legislative history of the OCSLA to see where that 30-day deadline came from, though so many of the deadlines in the OCSLA are set at 30 days, it might just have been arbitrary (or, it might have been what appeared to be a reasonable deadline to make sure the process kept moving forward–you gotta Drill Baby Drill, dontcha know).

But given Salazar’s and Birnbaum’s statements, the effect appears to be clear. That 30-day deadline appears to ensure that the MMS only looks closely at these exploration plans if there’s a blinking red flag in the plan, and not something trivial like drilling in extremely deep waters and/or innovative drilling plans–the things Whitehouse noted that should have prevented this exploration plan from being exempted from an individual assessment, the things that are causing such acute problems now.

And of course, to actually change this 30-day rubber stamp process, the legislation is going to have to get by industry shills like Lisa Murkowski and James Inhofe. Something to look forward to, I guess.

Oh, one more thing. The Congressman who raised concerns about the Arctic drilling? That’s the normally loathsome Heath Shuler. Just an indication of how a giant disaster can turn even the bluest of dogs into hippie environmentalists.

31 replies
  1. GulfCoastPirate says:


    Thanks for staying on this. I’ve got a feeling we’re going to need a lot of help down here before this is all over.

    Have you seen this? I can’t remember where I first heard of methyl hydrate during this nasty little episode but it seems to be a quircky little substance. It’s apparently an open secret among the oil types that there is lots of it the deeper you go in the GOM and it is somewhat hard to control. May be the type of detail you would be interested in.

    • skdadl says:

      Point of information: could someone explain to me the difference between methane hydrate and methyl hydrate? I keep running into both in these reports, but the former more than the latter. I know methyl hydrate as the stuff I use to keep the fondue pot hot, or as fire starter on charcoal in the hibachi (burns clean).

      • BoxTurtle says:

        Methane hydrate is (CH4)8(H2O)n . Methyl hydrate is basically CH3OH (H2O)n where N is pressure dependent. For methane, I think that number is around 46. Methyl hydrate is basically methly alcohol in water.

        Boxturtle (Disclaimer: My chemistry is rusty and furthermore I’ve slept since then)

        • PJEvans says:

          ISTR that methane hydrates are a known problem in very cold water, like the Arctic Ocean.
          People are still arguing about whether this one is methane hydrates or just a lot of natural gas coming out of solution very fast.

          (But did you sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night?)

      • BoxTurtle says:


        More than you ever wanted to know about Methane hydrate.

        Methyl hydrate is simply methyl alcohol in water.

        Boxturtle (My chemistry memory is better than I thought)

  2. BoxTurtle says:

    I remember when that was originally passed. I commented that the government couldn’t even get the paperwork together to begin an assessment in 30 days.

    IIR, National Geographic or Discover did a major article about the effects of the 30 day deadline. The idea was to set a deadline, then gut the agency budget so they couldn’t even answer a letter in 30 days.

    That 30 day deadline is critical to avoiding environmental assessments. But in this environment, I don’t know if they can protect it except via some backdoor. Like making sure that the budget is hacked enough that whatever deadline is set, it can’t be met.

    Boxturtle (This is not the only place government deadlines are used)

  3. Calvin Jones and the 13th Apostle says:

    And of course, to actually change this 30-day rubber stamp process, the legislation is going to have to get by industry shills like Lisa Murkowski and James Inhofe.

    Don’t forget Mary Landrieu and David “Diapers” Vitter. Gotta be bi-partisan!!

  4. JohnLopresti says:

    Crystalline methyl hydrate are one of the repositories of greenhouse gases; petrol extraction industry currently is working to develop ways to mine it as a fuel, from deep ocean, without releasing GHGs. E.g.

    The 1969 Santa Barbara channel spill was smaller than what has erupted from Deepwater Horizon already; in the SB instance, the overseeing government bureaucrat(s)++ waived environmental safety regulations in well design, essentially letting the well cover less realestate in 200 feet of water 5 miles offshore. Initial blowout prevention measures only shut off the narrowed cappable area; the vein of oil and gas a short distance away on the seafloor ruptured. State regulations ostensibly were inapplicable, as the site was beyond the state 3 mi waters limit. Cursory page at Santa Barbara county website. Locals took the government permitting agencies to court to attempt to obtain a temporary ban on drilling; here is one of the court decisions denying locals enhanced protection against drilling effects.

    So far, GPO has managed to place the Congressional Record Online for the years 1999 et seq. The Outer Continental Shelf Lands act passed in the enthusiastic late second term of Ike, and a legislative history summary shows revisions in several years, including a tweak in late Reagan 1st term. To review the actual speeches in congress for any of this legislative history, go to the nearest government library, e.g. Library of Congress. I wonder how many EPA regional libraries Bushco closed ever reopened; there was some pushback several years ago, whereby a few remained in service. Nixon gave an environmental sob story speech to soothe.+++
    ++The linked appeal mentions **D. W. Solanas, Regional Supervisor, Oil and Gas Division, United States Geological Survey**. V. case name caption in 426 F.2d 164 linked supra.

    +++Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 (43 U.S.C. 1331 – 1356, P.L. 212, Ch. 345, August 7, 1953, 67 Stat. 462) as amended by P.L. 93-627, January 3, 1975, 88 Stat. 2130; P.L. 95-372, September 18, 1978, 92 Stat. 629; and P.L. 98-498, October 19, 1984, 98 Stat. 2296.

  5. boltbrain says:

    “a quircky [sic] little substance” responsible for or intimately tied to a number of mass extinctions of oxygen-dependent organic life forms over the course of this planet’s history.

  6. virtualnaut says:

    (1) Here’s a 2005 site from Woods Hole on the maze of government ocean policy framework – pretty complicated, including 11 of 13 cabinet level departments, four agencies:

    (2) Let us not forget how EPA was politicized during the Bush years, at least according to 62 prominent scientists (as in manipulating reports, not seeking scientific advice or muzzling science, misleading the public via tight control on message)

  7. skdadl says:

    Thanks, BoxTurtle and John and boltbrain. I wonder why reports sometimes switch between the two terms. Anyway, just so long as I’m not killing the planet every time I light the wee hibachi.

  8. fatster says:

    For your Friday change of pace, there is some good news concerning methane.

    Montana Supreme Court voids state permits for 900 coalbed gas wells; orders re-evaluation


  9. Bluetoe2 says:

    The Obama administration is nothing more than a rubber stamp for whatever the corporations want to do to the American people. The HIR should be proof enough but then that proof just keeps getting longer and longer.

    • Bluetoe2 says:

      The U.S. has gone from the tragedy of the Bush years to the farce of the Obama years. Krugman said today that the U.S. may well have a whole decade of stagnant growth and malaise. I guess we can call it “the Obama Decade.”

  10. iremember54 says:

    No one can seem to face the fact that the Congress, makes the rules all these agencies have to live by.

    The Congress by it’s actions or inactions have caused every problem this Country has, and not fixed one.

    Now we are looking to Congress to fix the problems they created, and seeing they can’t handle the job.

    So what will we do?

    Vote and hope that changes everything, when it is our voting put the poeple in office that can’t get the job done.

    It’s one thing to love Your Country, and form of Government thinking it all works.

    It’s a completely different thing to love Your Country, and support Your Government even when You know it’s broken and doesn’t work.

    • PJEvans says:

      So, in your view, the president who asks for laws to be passed and makes appointments is completely powerless?

      • bmaz says:

        Yeah, exactly. Actually, congress passes bills and acts that give frameworks and whatever specifics they have focused on; however, the the vast majority of Administrative rules and codes are promulgated by the executive branch which is why it is such a powerful tool.

  11. thurbers says:

    Well, I think you will be able to move Landrieu from the rubber stamp brigade pretty soon. Louisiana won’t be electing an oil company rubber stamp for a decade or two starting in 5…4…3…

    Watch who signs on to eliminating liability caps, long term epa reviews and all those protective things soon. I’m thinking it is just a matter of time that will include representatives from Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.

  12. Bobster33 says:

    Having worked for a government agency (local fire department), I do not understand the confusion related to seemingly Byzantine legislative review process. When someone wants to building something, they apply for a permit. The permit application screens out the various agencies that have jurisdiction and informs the applicant of the number of copies of the various documents they must submit. If a developer knows what they are doing, then the process (although cumbersome) is fairly straight forward. Once the agency accepts the applicant’s permit application, the agency has a deadline to review and reject/approve the application.

    Having consulted for a number of regulatory agencies, management make all of the difference. In some jurisdictions, speed is of the essence. When this happens, reviewers will look for any excuse to reject the permit application so that their review numbers look good. The rumor amongst the department was that they wanted to limit development by slowing down the process.

    Some agencies are so determined to approve the permits, that they will redline corrections and accept the documents with corrections. This situation typically happens after a sudden shock to the system (i.e. earthquake) or funding approval (think schools after Clinton approved the classroom size reduction).

    The best ways to screw this whole approval process up (from best to least worst) is to have untrained permits screening specialists (because they will not know which agencies should get the plans), untrained case managers (who often manage the plan routing for large projects), untrained plan reviewers and finally overworked plan reviewers. I suspect Bush/Cheney knew this and gutted approval agencies from front to back.

    However, one thing a regulator cannot approve is something that is illegal. If the plans show something illegal, the permit applicant is still on the hook for making it right (before starting, during the work of after it is all done).

    • PJEvans says:

      At the local level, it’s probably a lot simpler process, and the environmental impacts are a lot smaller.

      • Bobster33 says:

        It may seem easier on the local level, but I have worked on 8,500 home track developments. this involves everything, where do they get their water, electricity, roads, shops, traffic studies, sewage, schools, shops, police, fire, medical, whose regulations are they going to follow (county of local city), will they call themselves a new city when its done? what about seismic studies, flood studies, etc.

    • Hmmm says:

      However, one thing a regulator cannot approve is something that is illegal. If the plans show something illegal, the permit applicant is still on the hook for making it right (before starting, during the work of after it is all done).

      That’d work. Presuming the regulatory agency is actually doing its job. When it’s not, as in this case, that whole ‘working’ part kinda gets left out.

  13. MarkH says:

    You can’t get a person to see red flags when they’re paid NOT to.

    Was the manager of MMS being true to Obama or were they in the pockets of corporate America?

    What’s the source of that 30-day rule?

    Can the president change that by Executive Order?

    Shouldn’t MMS personnel have known that a new kind of drilling (in very deep waters with new technology) have automatically called for something more than standard reviews?

  14. fatster says:

    This approach doesn’t plug the gusher, but it is a relatively simple, environmentally-friendly way to mop up the oil. LINK.

    • Hmmm says:

      Thanks for that. (And so nice to see you.)

      Not that it’s your responsibility to answer any of my questions, but the first thing that comes to mind is: Fire hazard? Second thing is: Does the absorption chemistry work the same when the oil is crude and the water is seawater and there’s sand and mud and dirt involved?

      • fatster says:

        Hi, Hmmm. How U? I’m no expert on any of that, except the Southern tongue. Looks like a great idea and I do hope someone will take the initiative and look into it. Seems like, during one of the hearings, that a rep from the Santa Barbara area discussed how they had mopped up using green hay, too, back when there was a big spill off Santa Barbara coast.

  15. timbo says:

    Oh, come now everybody–it it’s not on American soil, it’s just not subject to legal review! Everyone knows that by now! Just look at that real DC ruling about Habeaus protections and Bagram! This all follows a certain logic…

  16. bobschacht says:

    Thus spake bmaz:
    “the vast majority of Administrative rules and codes are promulgated by the executive branch which is why it is such a powerful tool.”

    This is why, when dealing with most laws, you need not only what the law actually sez (which you can usually get from the Fed Reg), but also the administrative rules and codes, which you have to get from the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). But I haven’t tried that route with rulings about Habeas protections.

    Bob in AZ

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