TUCSON, Ariz.— At least three of the wells served by the offshore production platform that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday were exempted from environmental review, according to a new analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity. Government records show that federal regulators approved the offshore wells in 1999 and 2000 with the same type of environmental waiver used to approve BP’s disastrousDeepwater Horizon project. In response to the BP spill, these waivers were recently banned for deepwater drilling but not for shallow wells like those connected with Mariner Energy’s operation, which exploded Thursday.
“Giving these kinds of shallow wells a free pass from a full environmental review is a dangerous way for the government to do business,” said Peter Galvin, conservation director at the Center. “The Obama administration has wisely said it’ll do away with these exemptions for deepwater operations, but now it needs to require that all drilling operations get the regulatory scrutiny they badly need.”
A White House review of offshore drilling regulations last month — launched after BP’s explosion, which eventually spilled 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf — acknowledged that complex and potentially dangerous deepwater projects deserved an in-depth review prior to approval to ensure safety and protection of wildlife and the environment. The Obama administration has promised to close that loophole — called a “categorical exclusion” — but failed to address the dangers of shallow-water operations.
Shallow-water operations (illustrated by Thursday’s explosion in 340 feet of water) can pose significant dangers and have a higher accident rate than deepwater operations. Researchers from the former Minerals Management Service acknowledged in a 2007 report that most well blowouts happened at wells in water depths of less than 500 feet. The report found one blowout per 362 wells drilled in 500 feet of water or less and just one blowout per 523 wells drilled in deeper waters.
There are other dangers too. The Wall Street Journal reports that, on average, there’s a fire once every three days on offshore oil facilities in the Gulf, including 16 on Mariner Energy’s platforms since 2007.
“Offshore drilling — whether in deep or shallow waters — poses a danger to people and the environment. It makes no sense to require deepwater operations to undergo environmental review but allow shallow operations to avoid it,” said Galvin.
Categorical exclusions are waivers in the National Environmental Policy Act meant to apply to projects with no, or minimal, negative effect, such as construction of outhouses and hiking trails. Use of the waivers in approving offshore drilling activities have come under attack since the BP spill as a prime illustration of the government’s lax oversight of the industry.