Interior Department Failed to Analyze Oil-Spill Risk
The Center for Biological Diversity today filed a lawsuit against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for failing to assess possible impacts on the Gulf of Mexico's endangered whales and sea turtles of a large oil spill resulting from drilling. Government approval of drilling has long operated under the assumption that the risk of a spill was too remote to jeopardize the Gulf's threatened and endangered species. Today's lawsuit seeks new analysis because massive spills can and do hurt wildlife.
"While Salazar's conclusion that exploration drilling in the Gulf posed little risk of a large oil spill was dubious at the time it was made, in light of BP's calamity that position is completely untenable," said Miyoko Sakashita, the Center's oceans director. "The public deserves disclosure and a full analysis of the true impacts of oil drilling off our coasts."
All drilling activities in the Gulf rely upon assumptions made in 2007 that oil spills would not put endangered species at risk. For coastal birds and nesting sea turtles, the former Minerals Management Service (now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement) concluded that an oil spill would have "discountable or insignificant effects" because of its "extremely low" likelihood of reaching habitat for endangered species. Similarly, the government concluded that all Gulf oil activities were unlikely to jeopardize offshore species, including leatherback, loggerhead, green, hawksbill and Kemp's ridley sea turtles, Gulf sturgeon and sperm whales. This conclusion relied on the assumption that "MMS expects that approximately one major oil spill could occur over the 40 years of the proposed action." Accordingly, the endangered species analysis included the "unlikely" or "rare" event of one "large" oil spill equivalent to be 630,000 gallons (15,000 barrels). This analysis is flawed since it underestimates the risk of large spills, which can and do occur during offshore oil activities.
"Like Obama's April 2 statement that ‘oil rigs today generally don't cause spills,' the administration's assumption that the largest possible oil spill was 15,000 barrels - less than one day of oil spilled from the ruptured BP well - has been proven absurd by the Gulf oil disaster," added Sakashita. "The government must revisit its slipshod analysis that oil drilling poses no risk to the Gulf's endangered species."
The Endangered Species Act requires all federal agencies, including the former Minerals Management Service, to ensure that any action they carry out does not "jeopardize" a threatened or endangered species. Salazar concluded that oil drilling in the Gulf would not jeopardize species; the Endangered Species Act requires agencies to revisit their conclusions about an action's impacts if new information calls those conclusions into question. The recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico triggers a legal obligation for the government to revisit its approvals of offshore oil and gas activities.