WASHINGTON — Since the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded on April 20, the Obama administration has granted oil and gas companies at least 27 exemptions from doing in-depth environmental studies of oil exploration and production in the Gulf of Mexico. The waivers were granted despite President Barack Obama’s vow that his administration would launch a “relentless response effort” to stop the leak and prevent more damage to the gulf. One of them was dated Friday — the day after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he was temporarily halting offshore drilling. The exemptions, known as “categorical exclusions,” were granted by the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) and included waiving detailed environmental studies for a BP exploration plan to be conducted at a depth of more than 4,000 feet and an Anadarko Petroleum Corp. exploration plan at more 9,000 feet.
“Is there a moratorium on off shore drilling or not?” asked Peter Galvin, conservation director with the Center for Biological Diversity, the environmental group that discovered the administration’s continued approval of the exemptions. “Possibly the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history has occurred and nothing appears to have changed.”
MMS officials said the exemptions are continuing to be issued because they do not represent final drilling approval. To drill, a company has to file a separate application under a process that is now suspended because of Salazar’s order Thursday. However, officials could not say whether the exemptions would stand once the moratorium is lifted. MMS’ approvals are expected to spark new criticism of the troubled agency and the administration’s response to the spill.
Salazar announced Thursday that there’d be no new offshore drilling until the Interior Department completes the safety review process requested by Obama. The department is required to deliver the report to the president by May 28. Given the MMS approvals, however, Galvin said the administration’s pledge appears disingenuous.
“It looks to me like they’re misleading the public,” he said.
MMS spokesman David Smith said his agency conducts a thorough review before it determines whether to grant such exemptions. SOURCE: McClatchy