Offshore Drilling Poised to Expand, but Transparency Still Lags

As the Obama administration increases approvals of deepwater oil drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico, environmental advocates have seen little meaningful increase in the transparency of the permitting process. A lack of transparency in the regulatory process was identified as a contributing factor in BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster and the highly criticized response effort.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) announced on Feb. 28 the approval of the first deepwater oil drilling permit since the BP disaster that released an estimated five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. A temporary ban on exploratory offshore oil drilling in water depths greater than 500 feet was lifted on Oct. 12, 2010. The new permit is for a well operated by Noble Energy of Houston, TX, and co-owned by BP. According to BOEMRE Director Michael R. Bromwich, "This permit was issued for one simple reason: the operator successfully demonstrated that it can drill its deepwater well safely and that it is capable of containing a subsea blowout if it were to occur."

Regardless of Bromwich’s assurances about the safety of the newly approved drilling, BOEMRE does not publicly disclose drillers' safety programs or their plans for preventing or containing an underwater blowout. Without access to these records, the public is left to simply trust governmental and drilling industry assertions that future operations will be safer than those on the Deepwater Horizon and that the spill containment capacity will be more effective.

In the press release announcing the new permit approval, BOEMRE states, "Noble Energy contracted with the Helix Well Containment Group (Helix) to use its capping stack to stop the flow of oil should a well control event occur. The capabilities of the capping stack meet the requirements that are specific to the characteristics of the proposed well." However, BOEMRE will not publicly disclose information on the capping stack or related information for other approved drilling permits. Moreover, BOEMRE will not release pending permit applications and associated information. Environmental advocates worry that such secrecy prevents needed scrutiny of the agency's review of offshore drilling permits.

According to Bromwich, "We expect further deepwater permits to be approved in coming weeks and months based on the same process that led to the approval of this permit." Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently informed a Senate panel, "There are other deepwater permits that are pending and the ones that will go out the door will hopefully be the templates that will allow us to move forward with an additional, significant number of deepwater permits."

BOEMRE's website does provide aggregated information on offshore oil drilling permits. The site shows the total number of pending or approved permits but provides no information on the safety features or contingency plans for individual wells.

BOEMRE's process for managing the publicly owned oil and gas resources off the nation's coast generally is divided into three stages. First, the agency drafts a five-year oil and gas leasing program describing the size, timing, and location of planned leasing activity. In the second stage, BOEMRE solicits proposals from industry for specific areas outlined in the five-year program to lease. Then the leases are auctioned off to the highest bidder. The last stage is the permitting process for drilling individual wells. Environmental reviews and public participation are key features throughout the drafting of the five-year program and identifying which tracts to lease. However, environmental advocates complain that the permitting process does not include the same level of transparency.

According to BOEMRE, "A lessee must file an Application for Permit to Drill (APD) before drilling can begin on a lease. The agency often attaches lease-specific conditions of approval to these permits to address matters such as administrative, technical, and environmental issues. In all cases, these are specific requirements depending on the conditions in the area." The oil drillers are also required to submit Oil Spill Response Plans to BOEMRE for approval. The conditions attached to permits and the spill response plans are not available on the agency website.

The public has access to limited amounts of data regarding offshore drilling. Information regarding the newly approved Noble Energy drilling permit is available through a searchable database on BOEMRE's website. The agency's database only provides access to a summary of the permit for each well and does not link to any supporting documents or to environmental analyses of the impacts of the drilling in the specific region. There is no opportunity for the public to see what types of technological requirements or standards a drilling operator has committed to implement. Information on environmental reviews of oil and gas leases is available in a separate location, and there is no clear way to identify what environmental analysis documents pertain to the particular permit.

BOEMRE has taken steps to use electronic reporting by industry. According the agency's website, "Working jointly with industry representatives and other regulatory agencies, BOEMRE is testing solutions that provide both a standard regulatory reporting format and a more direct interface with our databases." The public, however, is unable to take advantage of the improved information collection. Much of the information regarding pending and approved drilling permits is considered "proprietary" and is not disclosed.

Without adequate disclosure of key permit information, environmental advocates worry that plans to prevent or manage emergencies on oil rigs may be insufficient or missing entirely. During the BP Deepwater Horizon crisis, BOEMRE's predecessor, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) – along with the oil industry – was criticized for approving an inadequate and erroneous emergency response plan submitted by BP. An Associated Press analysis identified numerous errors in the plan, such as listing walruses, sea otters, and seals as local wildlife, when there are no such animals in the Gulf of Mexico.

Advocates are also concerned that without access to permit information, a regulatory agency such as BOEMRE cannot be held accountable by the public.

Since the BP oil spill, the Obama administration has taken steps to reform the bureaucracy that oversees the oil and gas extraction industry. Secretary Salazar reorganized MMS, creating BOEMRE and separating the conflicting roles of enforcing safety regulations and maximizing revenues from offshore operations. In August 2010, the Obama administration announced plans to improve the environmental review of the offshore oil drilling permitting process. The Department of the Interior announced that BOEMRE "will restrict its use of categorical exclusions for offshore oil and gas development to activities involving limited environmental risk."

The president also issued a regulatory compliance memo on Jan. 18 that calls for disclosure of "information concerning … regulatory compliance and enforcement activities…" Obama noted in the memo, "Greater disclosure of regulatory compliance information fosters fair and consistent enforcement of important regulatory obligations. Such disclosure is a critical step in encouraging the public to hold the Government and regulated entities accountable." What is unknown is whether permit data, such as for offshore drilling, will be disclosed under the memo.

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