Q On April 21st, Admiral Allen tells us the government started dispatching equipment rapidly to the Gulf, and you just said on day one you recognized the enormity of this situation. Yet here we are 39, 40 days later, you’re still having to rush more equipment, more boom. There are still areas of the coast unprotected. Why is it taking so long? And did you really act from day one for a worst-case scenario?
OBAMA: “. . . the question of how is it that oil companies kept on getting environmental waivers in getting their permits approved. Well, it turns out that the way the process works, first of all, there is a thorough environmental review as to whether a certain portion of the Gulf should be leased or not. That’s a thorough-going environmental evaluation. Then the overall lease is broken up into segments for individual leases, and again there’s an environmental review that’s done. But when it comes to a specific company with its exploration plan in that one particular area — they’re going to drill right here in this spot — Congress mandated that only 30 days could be allocated before a yes or no answer was given. That was by law. So MMS’s hands were tied. And as a consequence, what became the habit, predating my administration, was you just automatically gave the environmental waiver, because you couldn’t complete an environmental study in 30 days.”
I want to focus on Obama’s claim that MMS has only 30 days to approve a specific oil company’s permit, and therefore the agency’s “hands were tied”. Obama is referring here to 43 USC § 1340(c)(1) which says, in part,
. . .prior to commencing exploration pursuant to any oil and gas lease issued or maintained under this subchapter, the holder thereof shall submit an exploration plan to the Secretary for approval. . .The Secretary shall require such modifications of such plan as are necessary to achieve such consistency. The Secretary shall approve such plan, as submitted or modified, within thirty days of its
submission, except that the Secretary shall disapprove such plan if he determines that (A) any proposed activity under such plan would result in any condition described in section 1334(a)(2)(A)(i) of this title, and (B) such proposed activity cannot be modified to avoid such condition.
Now we move on to 43 USC § 1334(a)(2)(A)(i) which states that:
continued activity pursuant to such lease or permit would probably cause serious harm or damage to life (including fish and other aquatic life), to property, to any mineral (in areas leased or not leased), to the national security or defense, or to the marine, coastal, or human environment.
So while Obama is correct that Congress required MMS to approve or disapprove plans within 30 days, the MMS clearly can disapprove a leasing plan if there is a finding that such a plan could “cause serious harm or damage to life” etc. So the question is: were the risks to the environment and workers of drilling in 5,000 feet of water and 13,000 into rock fully known to government scientists? I think the record will show that there were indeed scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies who raised the specter of such risks, but their warnings went unheeded. So Obama told a half-truth (or a half-lie, depending on your perspective) because it is clear that MMS does indeed have discretion beyond a 30 day bondage – if the agency had bothered to listen to other scientists and not just Big Oil. Obama needs to do a better job learning the lessons of this crisis – and fast.
-Tyson Slocum is Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program