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Project on Government Oversight




MMS Understated Scale and Impact of Oil Spills in Five-Year Plan

May 4, 2010 


More evidence casting doubt on whether the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) has been overseeing offshore drilling with the best interest of taxpayers in mind.

In a 2009 response to MMS' proposed five-year plan for oil and gas leasing, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) determined MMS understated the scale of oil spills:

The [Draft Proposed Program] DPP highlights the safety of the offshore oil production industry by using information on frequency of spills from the US Coast Guard Marine Casualty Pollution Investigations, "Oil Spill Compendium 1972-2004." This time frame fails to include more recent information from many sources. Unfortunately, data from the USCG, MMS, and Congressional Research Service (CRS) show a substantial increase in spill volume in 2005, primarily due to spills associated with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Some of the damaged rigs and pipelines damaged during the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons continue to have episodic releases, and repairs have not been fully completed...These incidents call into question the DPP statement that: "It has been many years since any substantial environmental impacts have been observed as a result of an oil spill cause by the OCS production and transportation activities." (Emphasis courtesy of POGO.)

Furthermore, NOAA said MMS understated the environmental impact of spills:

The DPP's analysis of the risk and impacts of accidental spills and chronic impacts are understated and generally not supported or referenced, using vague terms and phrases such as "no substantive degradation is expected" and "some marine mammals could be harmed." …Several  statements on oil impacts seem to directly conflict with studies of major spills, notably the assertion that "[t]he impacts (to rocky shorelines) are expected to be localized, and recovery to pre-exposure conditions would occur within several years." And "[n[o substantive reduction in finfish or shellfish populations should result from either routine offshore activities or accidental oil spills" (emphasis POGO's).

NOAA also remarked in its public comment that MMS did not fully evaluate climate change, human dimensions, or spill modeling, and that MMS ultimately needed to strengthen its calculations for the net value of its proposed plan.

Marian Wang of ProPublica raises another important point about the MMS's ability to hold oil and gas companies accountable. The fines that the agency issues for safety violations are so small compared to oil company profits that they are, effectively, "equivalent to a rounding error."

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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