White House races to blunt attacks on offshore drilling policy

The White House is rushing to show that it’s boosting environmental controls over offshore drilling as Capitol Hill probes of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill turn toward allegations of lax Interior Department oversight.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee began the latest inquiry Friday, vowing to investigate “potential lapses in oversight” in recent years by the Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS), which regulates energy development in federal waters.

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The White House and Interior – in multiple statements Friday – announced expanded reviews of the way federal regulators approve drilling projects like the BP operation that went catastrophically astray in the Gulf.

“For too long, for a decade or more, there has been a cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill,” President Barack Obama said in Rose Garden remarks Friday. “It seems as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies. That cannot and will not happen anymore.”

After Obama spoke, the administration announced that the White House Council on Environmental Quality and Interior would jointly review the way MMS conducts environmental reviews.

The review targets MMS’s implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a 40-year-old law that requires federal agencies to analyze the ecological effects of their actions.

MMS has come under fire for granting exemptions – called “categorical exclusions” – from detailed environmental analyses for some projects, including the BP drilling that led to the ongoing Gulf of Mexico spill.

The waivers have caught the attention of lawmakers probing the Gulf disaster. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) wrote to Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley on Friday seeking documents about use of “categorical exclusions” for offshore projects.

Hours after announcing the review of NEPA issues Friday, Interior said it would also re-examine how oil-and-gas projects are reviewed under endangered species laws.

The decision follows a report in the New York Times Friday that MMS has routinely approved offshore drilling projects without first securing permits from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration branch that oversees marine species protections.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on Friday called the allegations in the Times report “very disturbing” and said that “we certainly need to get to the bottom of it.”

More broadly, the administration’s announcements come as at least five congressional committees are preparing for hearings next week on the Gulf oil spill.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will testify before Bingaman’s panel and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on May 18, where he is sure to face questions about environmental review of drilling plans.

Friday’s steps by the administration are the latest of several pledges to improve offshore regulation in the wake of the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 workers and touched off the ongoing spill that BP has been unable to contain.

The White House pledges of stricter controls also come just six weeks after the administration announced it will greatly expand offshore leasing in the 2012-2017 period. Those plans are facing increasing attacks from environmentalists and some Democrats, who point to the Gulf spill as a reason to reconsider.

The administration launched new inspections of offshore platforms last month, and has halted issuance of new offshore drilling permits until Interior completes a 30-day safety review later in May.

On May 11, Salazar said that he’s carving up the MMS, which both regulates offshore drilling and collects billions of dollars in royalties. He said he’s creating a new Interior environmental and safety agency that will include what had been MMS’s inspection, investigation and enforcement operations.

The troubled MMS was the subject of scathing reviews by Interior’s inspector general and congressional auditors during the Bush administration, reports that often focused on failure to ensure oil-and-gas producers were fully paying royalties. But some critics are now alleging that Salazar has not acted fast enough to reform the agency.

“Ken Salazar came into office announcing, ‘There is a new sheriff in town,’ and promised to reform the deeply corrupt Minerals Management Service. He took action regarding personal, criminal actions, but did absolutely nothing to address the agency’s dangerous practice of rubber-stamping offshore oil-drilling permits,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement Friday.

The Center on Thursday said it had filed a notice of intent to sue Interior over its approval of offshore drilling projects. The group said that Interior, under Salazar, has approved three offshore lease sales, more than 100 seismic surveys and more than 300 drilling operations without obtaining permits required under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.