Slick Politics

The Obama administration faces a lawsuit—and questions from Raul Grijalva—over drilling permits

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster that has many thousands of barrels of oil a day gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the Center for Biological Diversity has filed suit against the federal government to force the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service to do more environmental reviews before granting future off-shore-drilling permits.

"The Gulf of Mexico has become a lawless zone where oil companies are calling the shots," says Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson-based environmental agency that has had considerable success in forcing federal agencies to comply with the Endangered Species Act. "Our lawsuit takes issue with (Interior) Secretary (Ken) Salazar and the Minerals Management Service's blatant disregard for environmental laws."

Sakashita said that the MMS, a government agency that manages leases allowing oil companies to drill on federal land, "never bothered to obtain" the necessary permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act or the Endangered Species Act to proceed with deepwater drilling. She says the suit will challenge the approval of hundreds of permits that would allow drilling and exploration in the future.

Millions of gallons of oil have gushed from British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon pipeline since the rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 platform workers and creating what may be the worst oil spill in the history of the United States. Efforts to stop the oil from pouring out of the pipeline have met with little success so far.

The oil is threatening fisheries and beaches, and scientists warned this week that currents could pull the slick into the Florida Keys and kill fragile coral reefs and other marine life.

Congressman Raúl Grijalva, the Southern Arizona Democrat who chairs the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, reiterated his opposition to off-shore drilling in a letter to Salazar last week.

"This recent disaster has only intensified my belief that expansion of deep-water-drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico is misguided and should be rescinded," wrote Grijalva, who was rumored to be a candidate for the interior secretary post in the Obama administration before Salazar was tabbed. "Absent that decision, strict enforcement and transparent oversight must be a top priority."

Grijalva had several questions for Salazar regarding past and future regulatory efforts.

"Why did MMS regularly grant categorical exclusions for exploratory drilling permits and other drilling actions to Deepwater Horizon and other rigs in the Outer Continental Shelf?" asked Grijalva, who noted that the MMS had granted 27 such "categorical exclusions"—or CEs—in the Gulf of Mexico even after the Deepwater Horizon exploded. "What will MMS' future procedure be for granting CEs given that in the past, they were granted based on the premise that an accident at a given site was 'unlikely'?"

Last week, Salazar announced that he was splitting the Minerals Management Service into two branches—one to oversee the collection of royalties from leases, and another to deal with safety issues.

Grijalva spokesman Adam Sarvana said that Grijalva remains skeptical that Salazar's proposal will be sufficient to protect the environment.

"It sounds like the way it would work is that all the environmental processes that go into the granting of a permit would still be handled by the royalty-collection side," says Sarvana. "So we're not really sure what the difference would be. The details are not what we'd hope they would be."

A New York Times report last week quoted a number of government scientists who complained that their concerns about the permitting process had been ignored.

"The Department of the Interior is well aware that off-shore drilling has the potential to harm the environment and endangered species and marine mammals," Sakashita said. "Yet they're going forward in a way that allows industry self-regulation. Having monitored how the Department of the Interior is cozy with the oil industry, we've been able to discover a lot of lax regulation."

Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, issued a statement calling on Obama to reverse a March decision to expand offshore drilling to the Atlantic coast and allow offshore drilling near Alaska.

Suckling said the lawsuit "seeks to turn Salazar's fictitious 'moratorium' on oil drilling approvals into a real one."

He was sharply critical of Obama's support for Salazar in a Rose Garden speech last Friday, May 14.

"I think the president will come to regret this speech as his 'Heckuva job, Brownie' moment," Suckling said. "Today's speech can be summed up as, 'Heckuva job, Kennie.'"