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Obama's new offshore oil drilling rules: too many loopholes?

The White House’s new guidelines for offshore oil drilling in deep water were intended to make it tougher for oil companies to avoid detailed environmental reviews.

By Staff Writer / August 17, 2010

This Aug. 3 photo shows the Development Driller III, which is drilling the primary relief well, and the Helix Q4000, background left, the vessel being used to perform the static kill operation, at the site of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in Gulf of Mexico.

Gerald Herbert/AP/file

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The Obama administration's new guidelines for offshore oil drilling, which are intended to require much more detailed environmental reviews for deep-water drilling, have upset not only the oil industry, but environmentalists, too.

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The recommendations unveiled by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the US Department of the Interior on Monday were touted as ratcheting back widespread uses of "categorical exclusions."

That designation by the Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS) had exempted many deep-water drilling operations from detailed environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

In the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, environmental and other groups found that BP's Macondo well that was gushing oil – as well as most other deep-water wells in the region – had been graced with a categorical exclusion.

“In light of the increasing levels of complexity and risk – and the consequent potential environmental impacts – associated with deep-water drilling, we are taking a fresh look at the NEPA process and the types of environmental reviews that should be required for offshore activity,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in a statement.

While Congress wrangles over just how to tighten environmental requirements for offshore drilling, the Obama Administration says categorical exclusions will now be used far more sparingly. Steps the CEQ called for in its review include:

  • Reviewing the use of categorical exclusions for outer continental shelf, or OCS, oil and gas exploration and development "in light of the increasing levels of complexity and risk – and the consequent potential environmental impacts – associated with deep-water drilling."
  • Comprehensive NEPA review of individual deep-water exploration activities, including site-specific information "where appropriate," a loophole that angers some environmentalists.
  • Amending the OCS Lands Act to eliminate the current 30-day timeframe for approving exploration plan – and modify NEPA practices to reflect new environmental findings since the BP oil spill.

“The recommendations in this report are targeted to ensure robust environmental reviews for future oil and gas exploration and development,” Nancy Sutley, CEQ chair, said in a statement.

But limiting use of categorical exclusions could create costly delays and curb job growth, the American Petroleum Institute (API), an industry lobby group says.

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