GREEN
08/21/2010 12:29 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gulf Oil Spill: Government Regulator Downplayed Environmental Impact Of Spill

This story has been updated

In the wake of the growing environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, BP is being blamed for discounting the potential for a massive oil spill and underestimating its effects.

But the federal agency tasked with oversight of offshore oil drilling may be even more responsible for understating the impact of a spill in the environmentally-sensitive area.

In a 2007 environmental impact statement for the Western and Central Planning Area Sales, which includes the Macondo Prospect where the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service downplayed the potential for environmental damage. (h/t Professor John Bonine at the University of Oregon School of Law)

In the document which covers oil drilling leases from 2007-2012, MMS assesses the potential impact of oil spills and blowouts on wetlands, marine mammals, commercial fishing, economic impacts, and water quality, among other factors (emphasis mine):

- "Offshore oil spills resulting from a proposed action are not expected to damage significantly any wetlands along the Gulf Coast... Overall, impacts to wetland habitats from an oil spill associated with activities related to a proposed action would be expected to be low and temporary."

- "The effect of proposed-action-related oil spills on commercial fishing is expected to cause less than a 1 percent decrease in standing stocks of any population, commercial fishing efforts, landings, or value of those landings. Any affected commercial fishing activity would recover within 6 months. At the expected level of impact, the resultant influence on commercial fishing activities from a proposed action would be negligible and indistinguishable from variations due to natural causes."

- "Since LWC [loss of well control] events and blowouts are rare events and of short duration, potential impacts to marine water quality are not expected to be significant."

- "Accidental blowouts, oil spills, and spill-response activities resulting from a proposed action have the potential to impact marine mammals in the GOM. Exposure to hydrocarbons persisting in the sea following the dispersal of an oil slick is likely to result in sublethal impacts (e.g., decreased health, reproductive fitness, and longevity; and increased vulnerability to disease) to marine mammals."

- "Non-market effects such as traffic congestion, strains on public services, shortages of commodities or services, and disruptions to the normal patterns of activities or expectations are also expected to occur in the short term. These negative, short-term social and economic consequences of an oil spill are expected to be modest in terms of projected cleanup expenditures and the number of people employed in cleanup and remediation activities."

In response, the state of Louisiana, which is bearing the brunt of the damage caused by the recent disaster, lashed out at the agency for its faulty analysis:

In a January 5, 2007 letter to MMS, the acting assistant secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources's Office of Coastal Restoration and Management, Gerald Duszynski, was scathing in his criticism, slamming the agency for deferring examination of drilling's environmental impact and "masking" the indirect and cumulative effect of offshore oil production:

"As our state repeatedly has stated in the past, Louisiana generally supports the exploration for and development of our nation's domestic energy resources, including oil and gas resources on the Gulf of Mexico OCS, and look forward to continuing to play a critical part in helping meet our nation's energy needs. Indeed, Louisiana has served an important role in encouraging and promoting oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico since the first days of leasing in the OCS. Yet, as the State repeatedly has expressed, the long history of OCS oil and gas leasing activity off of Louisiana's coast has significantly affected the State's coastal resources and infrastructure. Recent experience acutely demonstrates that OCS oil and gas leasing activity cannot proceed in a vacuum. It cannot proceed as if Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were simply aberrations. And it cannot proceed in the same manner that it has now for many years, without undertaking a meaningful and accurate analysis of the environmental impacts of the program."

In addition, Duszynski notes:

"Many of these documents appear to be generated by desktop programs, with little or no actual inquiry into the on-the-ground environmental impacts..."

"It underestimates wetland losses attributable to OCS activites. It minimizes the importance of estimated wetland losses, characterizing such losses as "negligible" when they are anything but."

Click here for the full environmental impact statement.

In addition, as HuffPost's Dan Froomkin reports, an Interior Department draft report on the safety of offshore oil production was heavily criticized by National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration officials, who claimed that it dramatically underestimated the frequency of offshore oil spills and understated the risk and impacts of a spill.