Breaking! Obama Cabinet Official Looks Backward!

Doug Lamborn (R-CO Whiner) complained to Ken Salazar that there had been too much focus on the sex and drug scandal of MMS under the Bush Administration.  Salazar let him have it.

Lamborn: We all want to get to the bottom of this tragedy. And I think we all agree that finger-pointing will not get us there. I don’t understand–I have to be real honest here–why you and others keep harping on what MMS did or didn’t do in the previous Administration, when you did know about these problems when you came into office and you have been in charge of them for more than a year now. Why aren’t we talking about the here and now?

Salazar: Well we are talking, Congressman Lamborn, about the here and now, and that’s why people have been terminated, people have been referred over to prosecution, and we’ve done a lot to clean house at MMS. Unlike the prior Administration, this is not the candy store of the oil and gas kingdom which you and others were a part of. And so we have moved forward in a manner that is thoughtful, that is responsible, that holds those accountable. And those who violate the law, Congressman Lamborn, will be terminated and whatever other sanctions of law are appropriate, those sanctions of law will be applied.

On February 4, 2009, after Salazar halted some of Bush’s drilling efforts and asked DOJ to reconsider for prosecution some of those involved in the worst MMS scandals, I mused with some surprise that Ken Salazar was at that point the high point of the Obama Administration for me.b

And for his strengths and weaknesses since then, I gotta say that Salazar is still the only one who looked backward in timely manner and because of that could say, this clearly, that he had put the corruption of the Bush Administration behind him.

Top Kill Discussion Thread

Okay, for any Firedogs and Wheelheads following the big Top Kill moonshot (link is to a great Oil Drum explanation) going on, this is an open discussion thread. If you need a link, CNN has a live feed linked on their front page, here is the NPR feed. If folks have better ones, put them in comments.

The US Coast Guard has given final approval for the Top Kill attempt, so away we go I guess.

Here is a synopsis from Amina Khan at the LATimes:

To make up the pressure difference, technicians plan to pump mud into the blowout preventer, a kind of surge protector that sits on top of the wellhead. The device had failed to cut off the flow of oil when the pressure surged too high.

The mud that will be used, drilling mud, is a dense mixture of water and minerals such as bentonite clay. It can be made even denser by adding heavier minerals such as barite and galena.

The heavier the mud, the more it will suppress the flow — but on the flip side, the harder it will be to pump in.

The mud will be pumped from surface vessels with a combined 50,000-horsepower pumping capacity into the internal cavity of the blowout preventer. BP officials said they planned to pump the mud at a rate of up to 40 barrels per minute.

It’s unclear how much mud will be needed to stop the flow of oil, BP spokesman Bryan Ferguson said. It’s possible, he said, that the entire cavity of the blowout preventer will have to be filled.

Once the oil flow has been contained, the hole will be covered with cement to permanently close the well.

If it looks like the procedure isn’t working, perhaps because too much mud is leaking from the top of the blowout preventer, technicians plan to implement the junk shot — shooting in material to keep the mud from escaping.

The clog would include odd objects such as rope knots, golf balls and shredded tires. These materials are picked for a reason — each odd shape serves a different function, and the more varied the shapes of the collected junk, the more effective the clog will be.

BP officials said they could shoot a clog into the system several times, if necessary.

Okay, to start the ball rolling, here is my first question: The newer CGI depictions of the process give me more hope than the early ones in that it now appears the material is moving through a simpler path in and through the BOP than it first appeared. That is good. But my question is what is the status of these high pressure lines they have attached to pump the mud in through? As I read last night in a couple of different places, they had to actually cut off the old hose and fittings on the two key entry points, the kill line and the choke line, and then “clean up” which I take to essentially be grinding/filing to de-burr whatever flange is remaining and then clamp new feed lines for the mud on. Is that right? And, if so, are clamp fittings going to hold such high pressure? I have a pressure washer that only goes up to 3000 psi, and there is no way in hell you could use a clamp fitting on it; has to be threaded. So, is this gonna work on the BOP?

Here is the official BP Top Kill animation video.

Here is the official BP graphic description of the Top Kill process:

[Lead graphic – BP: Broken Promises. Logo design by Foye 2010 submitted as part of the Art For Change BP Logo Redesign Contest and used with permission]

“I cannot see that any other form of organisation would stand a better chance”

I’ve been thinking a lot during the last month about the fact that 50-some years ago, the United States overthrew the democratically-elected government in Iran because the country nationalized BP’s assets in the country. Take this FT interview with the Chairman of BP, Carl-Henric Svanberg, that Yves Smith linked to.

As Yves points out, Svanberg discusses its relationship with the United States (remember–the country that overthrew a government for BP) as mutually beneficial, or perhaps mutually dependent, and certainly equal.

He said: “The US is a big and important market for BP, and BP is also a big and important company for the US, with its contribution to drilling and oil and gas production. So the position goes both ways.

“This is not the first time something has gone wrong in this industry, but the industry has moved on. Of course our reputation will be tarnished, but let’s wait and see how we do with plugging the well and cleaning up the spill.”

Yves points out that BP “was far from the only major oil company that does deep water drilling.” And that’s undoubtedly true. But it’s worth recalling a few details I pointed out in this post. BP has a significant share–perhaps a third–of the deepwater drilling in the Gulf and is involved in several of the most ambitious projects in terms of depth and complexity. BP also does significantly more deepwater drilling than its competitors (see slide 30)–more than Exxon and Mobil combined; Shell is a distant second to BP. Not that that should make the US subservient to BP; ultimately Shell or Exxon or Andarko (which has a stake in the Macondo well) should be able to come in and take over this well. But BP is the company that is most pushing the limits of deepwater drilling at the moment, and because of that has the ability to best exploit the oil reserves in the deepwater Gulf.

So to the extent that the US feels a strategic need to develop some US sources of oil–and frankly, to the extent that the US feels a need to develop a non-nationalized source of oil anywhere in the world–the Gulf is going to be a part of that. Apparently, 4 US locations are in the top 20 sources of non-nationalized sources of oil.

For example, once reserves that are entirely owned by governments are removed from the analysis, of the 104 remaining fiscal regimes ranked by Wood Mackenzie that allow some participation by international oil companies and that have remaining oil and gas reserves, the deep water U.S. Gulf of Mexico ranked 18th highest in terms of remaining oil and gas reserves. Three other U.S. regions were ranked in the top 18 in terms of reserves. These were the U.S. Rocky Mountains (8th), Alaska (14th), and U.S. Gulf Coast (15th), but these regions are not uniquely covered by the federal fiscal regimes, as state and private resource owners may also exist.

Of course, the reason we need to retain sources of oil not owned by national governments is to prevent countries like Venezuela and Iran from attaining too much power to use their oil as a weapon. (And to ensure that if, say, Israel decided to launch a war against Iran, there would be sufficient supply in our control for us to join in the belligerence.)

So while BP is not irreplaceable, the drilling it does in the Gulf does play a key role in the US strategy for maintaining its global hegemony. That doesn’t mean that’s the way it should be. But that’s the way it is.

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BP Fixed a Negative Pressure Test before the Well Blew

Back when the House Commerce Committee had its first hearing on the BP Disaster, Henry Waxman revealed some inconsistencies about the negative pressure test BP did on the well before it moved to close off the well.

The next bullet says: “After 16.5 hours waiting on cement, a test was performed on the wellbore below the Blowout Preventer.” BP explained to us what this means. Halliburton completed cementing the well at 12:35 a.m. on April 20 and after giving the cement time to set, a negative pressure test was conducted around 5:00 p.m. This is an important test. During a negative pressure test, the fluid pressure inside the well is reduced and the well is observed to see whether any gas leaks into the well through the cement or casing.

According to James Dupree, the BP Senior Vice President for the Gulf of Mexico, the well did not pass this test. Mr. Dupree told Committee staff on Monday that the test result was “not satisfactory” and “inconclusive.” Significant pressure discrepancies were recorded.

As a result, another negative pressure test was conducted. This is described in the fourth bullet: “During this test, 1,400 psi was observed on the drill pipe while 0 psi was observed on the kill and the choke lines.”

According to Mr. Dupree, this is also an unsatisfactory test result. The kill and choke lines run from the drill rig 5,000 feet to the blowout preventer at the sea floor. The drill pipe runs from the drill rig through the blowout preventer deep into the well. In the test, the pressures measured at any point from the drill rig to the blowout preventer should be the same in all three lines. But what the test showed was that pressures in the drill pipe were significantly higher. Mr. Dupree explained that the results could signal that an influx of gas was causing pressure to mount inside the wellbore.

Another document provided by BP to the Committee is labeled “What Could Have Happened.” It was prepared by BP on April 26, ten days before the first document. According to BP, their understanding of the cause of the spill has evolved considerably since April 26, so this document should not be considered definitive. But it also describes the two negative pressure tests and the pressure discrepancies that were recorded.

What happened next is murky. Mr. Dupree told the Committee staff that he believed the well blew moments after the second pressure test. But lawyers for BP contacted the Committee yesterday and provided a different account. According to BP’s counsel, further investigation has revealed that additional pressure tests were taken, and at 8:00 p.m., company officials determined that the additional results justified ending the test and proceeding with well operations. [my emphasis]

Today, Waxman is out with an interim report on what happened. And here’s what that report says about this negative pressure test.

Further, BP’s preliminary findings indicate that there were other events in the 24 hours before the explosion that require further inquiry. As early as 5:05 p.m., almost 5 hours before the explosion, an unexpected loss of fluid was observed in the riser pipe, suggesting that there were leaks in the annular preventer in the BOP. Two hours before the explosion, during efforts to begin negative pressure testing, the system gained 15 barrels of liquid instead of the 5 barrels that were expected, leading to the possibility that there was an “influx from the well.” A cementer witness stated that the “well continued to flow and spurted.” Having received an unacceptable result from conducting the negative pressure test through the drill pipe, the pressure test was then moved to the kill line where a volume of fluid came out when the line was opened. The kill line was then closed and the procedure was discussed; during this time, pressure began to build in the system to 1400 psi. At this point, the line was opened and pressure on the kill line was bled to 0 psi, while pressure on the drill pipe remained at 1400 psi. BP’s investigator indicated that a “fundamental mistake” may have been made here because this was an “indicator of a very large abnormality.” The kill line then was monitored and by 7:55 p.m. the rig team was “satisfied that [the] test [was] successful.” At that time, the rig started displacing the remaining fluids with seawater, leading to the three flow indicators described above.

[snip]

Negative pressure testing was initially done on the drill pipe rather than the kill line, even though the drill plan specified that it would be done on the kill line. After anomalous results, the negative pressure testing was conducted on the kill line and ultimately accepted. Evidence suggests that spacer fluid used during the displacement of drilling fluid with seawater did not rise above the BOP to the level required by the drilling plan; this increased pressure in the drill pipe and may have interfered with later pressure testing. [my emphasis]

Click through to read the whole memo. You’ll see that before BP played this little game with the negative pressure test, there were already indications that something was amiss. Yet they still used procedures that violated their drill plan. And in spite of indications of a “very large abnormality,” they kept testing until they got something they could claim fulfilled the test. And then, kaboom!

I’m most disgusted by the description of some discussion of the procedure they were using for the test. Remember–there were a bunch of BP bigwigs on the rig, celebrating its spotless safety record! It sort of makes you wonder who took part in those discussions that ultimately led them to ignore two contrary tests and do another one?

And I’m wondering about Mr. Dupree. Did he deliberately forget to tell the Committee about the third test, the one they miraculously declared adequate?

You almost get the feeling BP didn’t know precisely what it wanted to tell Congress about these multiple and contradictory tests, huh?

BP: We Have to Use Corexit Because No One Tests for Endocrine Disruptors

As Scarecrow reported on Saturday, BP told EPA it would not switch from Corexit to another less toxic dispersant. BP admits that five approved dispersants are less toxic than Corexit; it dismisses four of those because the manufacturers cannot get enough product in place immediately.

BP does not have a stockpile of the other dispersants that meet the criteria in the May 19th Directive [of being less toxic], and the manufacturers tell us that they cannot produce the requested volume for 10 to 14 days or more.

So what about the fifith dispersant, Sea Brat #4, which is both less toxic and–BP tells us–and which BP has 100,000 gallons in its inventory? BP explains that Sea Brat #4 may degrade into an endocrine disruptor.

Sea Brat #4 contains a small amount of a chemical that may degrade to a nonylphenol (NP). The class of NP chemicals have been identified by various government agencies as potential endocrine disruptors, and as chemicals that may persist in the environment for a period of years. The manufacturer has not had the opportunity to evaluate this product for these potential effects, and BP has not had the opportunity to conduct independent tests to evaluate this issue either. BP learned of this issue after it applied to use Sea Brat #4 at the incident site.

With this additional information in hand, we believe it would be prudent to evaluate the potential NP issue more carefully before EPA or the FOSC require Sea Brat to be used at the incident site, and in particular, before it is applied underwater near the ocean floor.

BP latches onto a reality of the great test tube that is our everyday environment to explain why it is not using a competitors product. And the concern about the effect of possible endocrine disruptors is real. Endocrine disruptors have been associated with a range of biological problems, particularly with normal reproduction and cancers.

But that sort of raises a larger point, doesn’t it? These chemicals have been approved for use by the EPA but haven’t been tested to see if they degrade into endocrine disruptors. Not only does that mean we can’t choose a less toxic dispersant in time of emergency. But it also means this stuff is already being used, with no clear idea of the consequences of its use.

Of course, all this doesn’t answer the other question: whether we should be using dispersants at all, or whether BP is using it just to hide the effects of the spill underwater.

How Much Does BP Pay Us for Privilege of Soiling Our Shores?

The Mineral Management Service claims that revenues from oil production once became the country’s second largest source of revenue after income tax.

As the industry continued to evolve through the 1950s, oil production became the second-largest revenue generator for the country, after income taxes.

That’s a historical claim, though the American Petroleum Institute still pitches a version of it: “one of the federal government’s largest sources of non-tax income.” But it got me thinking about how much we’re actually getting from the oil companies, like BP, in exchange for them soiling our shores.

Last year, the Minerals Revenue Management department of the Mineral Management Service reported $9.9 billion in royalties from all mineral exploitation. Of that, MRM collected $5.8 billion for all federal offshore drilling of oil and gas.

$5.8 billion for exposing an ecosystem like the Gulf to the risk of the catastrophe that is now playing out. BP will pay more in liability or cleanup than that.

Of the $5.8 billion MMS brought in from offshore oil and gas drilling, $3.1 billion appears to come from oil, which is our share of the $23.5 billion in revenues for 425,199,067 BBL of oil drilled off shore.

Do the math. If I’m doing my math correctly, that means we’re getting less than $7.60/BBL for royalties the oil. That’s not all the money we get, mind you. There’s the actual bonus bid for the drilling rights and rent up until oil starts flowing; BP paid $34 million to the rights to this particular site. And starting in 2008, royalty percentages for Gulf leases were raised to 18.75%, but a lot of those leases aren’t producing yet. But using the $7.60 we’ve been getting for oil, taking the highest estimates for the rate of spill–70,000 BBL/day–and assuming it will spill for a total of 90 days, taxpayers would get less than $48 million in oil revenues for all that oil, enough to ruin the Gulf ecosystem for a generation, not to mention the serious damage to the fishing and tourist industries. While not all of the fishing and tourist industries will be destroyed, in 2008 all Gulf states brought in over $1 billion in fish, shrimp, and oysters, and $20 billion in tourism.

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Dr. Sludgelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Junk Shotting And Love Teh Bomb

Maybe those wacky Russians had it right and the best chance at actually shutting off the bleeding earth below the once and future Deepwater Horizon platform is to bomb the damn thing shut. From Jeremy Hsu via CSM:

Using a nuclear explosion to try to plug the gushing oil well in the Gulf of Mexico might sound like overkill, but a Russian newspaper has suggested just that based on past Soviet successes. Even so, there are crucial differences between the lessons of the past and the current disaster unfolding.

The Russians previously used nukes at least five times to seal off gas well fires. A targeted nuclear explosion might similarly help seal off the oil well channel that has leaked oil unchecked since the sinking of a BP oil rig on April 22, according to a translation of the account in the daily newspaper Komsomoloskaya Pravda by Julia Ioffe of the news website True/Slant.

Weapons labs in the former Soviet Union developed special nukes for use to help pinch off the gas wells. They believed that the force from a nuclear explosion could squeeze shut any hole within 82 to 164 feet (25 to 50 meters), depending on the explosion’s power. That required drilling holes to place the nuclear device close to the target wells.

Yeah, yeah I know …. oooooh spooky nukes! But we have a whole catalog of conventional bunker busters, couldn’t one of these mothers of all bombs (MOABs) do the trick? I don’t know, I am not a deepwater oil well implosion expert. But you know what hasn’t worked? The big top hat, the little top hat, the giant sippy straw, the blow out preventer, toxic dispersant sold by a BP subsidiary and the top kill and junk shot BP blathers about are laughable on their face. The solution ideas to date have been straight out of the Wile E. Coyote Acme School of BP Profitology. And the Ferengi like addiction to oil profit is exactly the issue as BP has clung to every bone headed idiotic play available that will keep their precious oil well viable for production; all the while bleeding out its black death to the Gulf. BP would literally rather kill the Gulf and screw the citizenry than destroy its investment.

Now I first mentioned the bomb idea about a week ago, kind of tongue in cheek, in some of our backstage discussions (the theory is now known as the “bmaz bomb”). But I am not alone. Oh no, not alone at all; there are legitimate people going there too. Christopher J. Brownfield is a former nuclear submarine ranking officer in the US Navy and has a subsequent academic background in international energy policy. Brownfield has the same thought I have regarding the possibility of using conventional explosives to shut the well off:

But there could be be a third option that Obama might bring to the table, once we recognize that BP is just as concerned about salvaging its precious asset as it is about stopping the spill. Our military could potentially use a carefully placed combination of conventional explosives to collapse the well. Our technology is much better than that of the Soviet Union in 1966, so we should be able to make this work without having to go nuclear. I’m confident that the U.S. Navy, the Army Corps of Engineers, and some private-sector organizations could come together and make this happen. The only question is whether Obama will be bold enough to take charge of this problem at the risk of his presidency slipping down the deep, dark well.

Would it work? Heck, I dunno. But it sounds a little more plausible than hair brained schemes BP and the government have put their collective heads together to produce so far. I know this, out here in the west they use explosives to seal off mine shafts all the time, and quite effectively. You would think that the right experts could devise a solution that would close off a sufficient portion of the narrow well hole here to seal it permanently.

There is a lot of experience in controlled implosions under a variety of circumstances. Would it be harder a mile under the sea? Sure, but if we have the technology to be drilling there and two miles further down from the sea floor, then we ought to be able to figure this out too. If it destroys BP’s precious well, that is just an extra benefit; they don’t deserve it anyway.

As profound nukulur scholar Major King Kong would say, “Wahoooooooo”. Bomb the sucker!

[graphic by the one and only twolf and thanks to Eli for some terminology help]

The EPA’s History of William Reilly

I was going to go clean the house and forget about the BP disaster for a few hours. But then I saw the EPA files on William Reilly, the Republican Obama appointed to co-chair his BP Disaster “Looking Forward” Commission.

From the EPA’s institutional perspective, he sounds like a nice guy: a Republican conservationist of the sort that went the way of the NE Republican. Here’s a fairly interesting policy piece from him.

But I wanted to highlight just a few parts of EPA’s institutional history of Reilly for what they say about Obama and this commission.

First, there’s the description of Reilly as a broker of compromise.

Reilly’s proclivity for drawing people together will not just be directed outward, toward the regulated community: it can also be expected to bring new cohesion to the internal operations of EPA.

[snip]

Reilly’s personal style–gentlemanly and soft-spoken–makes him the ideal mediator, effective at bridging differences even when antagonisms are intensely felt and there seems to be no common ground for agreement.

[snip]

In recent years, Reilly has scored successes with his efforts to secure dialogue and cooperation among frequently polarized business and environmental leaders. One such widely applauded breakthrough occurred in November 1988 when 25 previously warring environmentalists, industrialists, and developers made a public commitment to a “no net loss” goal for U.S. wetlands, a resource heretofore subject to dangerously rapid depletion. These same people, so harmonious by late 1988, had scarcely been on speaking terms when Reilly first coaxed them to convene for a meeting in July 1987.

This is a guy with Obama’s instinct for the mushy middle, right there between corporations and environmentalists.

Perhaps most telling, though, are the lessons in a report for President Poppy Bush on the Exxon Valdez spill completed under Reilly and then-Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner’s guidance two months after the spill (that’s a picture of Reilly at the cleanup site–the picture above is Reilly at the Kuwait oil fires during Poppy Bush’s Saddam war). I expect he’ll write something similar for Obama’s commission six months from now.

  • Preparedness must be strengthened. Exxon was not prepared for a spill of this magnitude–nor were Alyeska, the State of Alaska, or the federal government. It is clear that the planning for and response to the Exxon Valdez incident was unequal to the task. Contingency planning in the future needs to incorporate realistic worst-case scenarios and to include adequate equipment and personnel to handle major spills. Adequate training in the techniques and limitations of oil spill removal is critical to the success of contingency planning. Organizational responsibilities must be clear, and personnel must be knowledgeable about their roles. Realistic exercises that fully test the response system must be undertaken regularly. The National Response Team is conducting a study of the adequacy of oil spill contingency plans throughout the country under the leadership of the Coast Guard.
  • Response capabilities must be enhanced to reduce environmental risk. Oil spills–even small ones–are difficult to clean up. Oil recovery rates are low. Both public and private research are needed to improve cleanup technology. Research should focus on mechanical, chemical, and biological means of combating oil spills. Decision-making processes for determining what technology to use should be streamlined, and strategies for the protection of natural resources need to be rethought.
  • Some oil spills may be inevitable. Oil is a vital resource that is inherently dangerous to use and transport. We therefore must balance environmental risks with the nation’s energy requirements. The nation must recognize that there is no fail-safe prevention, preparedness, or response system. Technology and human organization can reduce the chance of accidents and mitigate their effects, but may not stop them from happening. This awareness makes it imperative that we work harder to establish environmental safeguards that reduce the risks associated with oil production and transportation. The infrequency of major oil spills in recent years contributed to the complacency that exacerbated the effect of the Exxon Valdez spill.
  • Legislation on liability and compensation is needed. The Exxon Valdez incident has highlighted many problems associated with liability and compensation when an oil spill occurs. Comprehensive U.S. oil spill liability and compensation legislation is necessary as soon as possible to address these concerns.
  • Read more

Obama’s BP Disaster Commission: Looking Forward with No Subpoenas

As promised Obama signed an executive order forming a presidential commission to study the BP disaster today. I thought it’d be instructive to compare what he just formed with what Edward Markey and Lois Capps proposed. Starting with this detail:

Sec. 4. Administration. (a) The Commission shall hold public hearings and shall request information including relevant documents from Federal, State, and local officials, nongovernmental organizations, private entities, scientific institutions, industry and workforce representatives, communities, and others affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, as necessary to carry out its mission. [my emphasis]

Obama’s envisioning this Commission “requesting” information from entities like BP and Halliburton. Capps and Markey, however, envision subpoenas:

(b) Subpoenas-

(1) ISSUANCE-

(A) IN GENERAL- A subpoena may be issued under this subsection only–

(i) by agreement of the Chairman and the Vice Chairman; or

(ii) by the affirmative vote of eight members of the Commission.

(B) SIGNATURE- Subject to subparagraph (A), subpoenas issued under this subsection may be issued under the signature of the Chairman or any member designated by a majority of the Commission, and may be served by any person designated by the Chairman or a member designated by a majority of the Commission.

(2) ENFORCEMENT-

(A) IN GENERAL- In the case of contumacy or failure to obey a subpoena issued under paragraph (1), the United States district court for the judicial district in which the subpoenaed person resides, is served, or may be found, or where the subpoena is returnable, may issue an order requiring such person to appear at any designated place to testify or to produce documentary or other evidence. Any failure to obey the order of the court may be punished by the court as a contempt of that court.

(B) ADDITIONAL ENFORCEMENT- In the case of a failure of a witness to comply with a subpoena or to testify when summoned under authority of this section, the Commission may, by majority vote, certify a statement of fact constituting such failure to the appropriate United States attorney, who may bring the matter before a grand jury for its action, under the same statutory authority and procedures as if the United States attorney had received a certification under sections 102 through 104 of the Revised Statutes of the United States (2 U.S.C. 192 et seq.).

Obama also has a different idea of who should serve on this committee, specifically providing for industry participation Read more

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.

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