WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Minerals Management Service allowed drilling in the Gulf of Mexico without requiring necessary permits for harm to endangered and marine species, records show.
The MMS, the branch of the Interior Department that manages offshore oil activities, approved large lease projects without demanding environmental review or requiring incidental take permits, siding with the oil and gas industry instead of enforcing federal regulations.
The blanket lease approval included the Deepwater Horizon rig, which suffered an explosion April 20 that killed 11 crewmembers and started a devastating oil spill leaking thousands of barrels into the gulf each day.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group based in Tucson, the MMS has approved three large lease sales since January 2009, more than 100 seismic surveys, which set off loud sonic booms that can damage marine mammals’ hearing and behavioral patterns, and more than 300 drilling operations without obtaining permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
On Friday, the group filed a notice of intent to sue Interior Secretary Ken Salazar “for ignoring marine-mammal protection laws when approving offshore drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico.”
The bottlenose dolphin, the Florida manatee and the endangered sperm whale inhabit the area where the Deepwater Horizon was drilling.
“The Department of the Interior is well aware of its obligations under the law, as well of the harm to endangered whales that can occur from oil industry operations, yet it has simply decided it cannot be bothered,” said center director Miyoko Sakashita.
MMS allegedly failed to enforce federal regulations that would mitigate the impact of harm to endangered species in the area, such as having the oil companies conduct seismic surveys when endangered whales were not present.
The agency has already been under fire this week for its inherent conflict of interest in regulating offshore drilling activities while collecting billions of dollars a year in royalties from federal oil and gas leases.
On Tuesday, Salazar announced that the regulatory agency would be split in two in an effort to divide the conflicting interests. Last year, the MMS collected $6.5 billion in royalties, taking in more money than every other federal agency except the Internal Revenue Service.
The MMS has received internal criticism as well.
Last May, MMS scientist Ken Abbott wrote a letter to Interior officials warning them that a BP drilling rig in the gulf, BP Atlantis, posed a threat to the fragile gulf ecosystem.
“The purpose of this letter is to restate in writing our concern that the BP Atlantis project presently poses a threat of serious, immediate, potentially irreparable and catastrophic harm to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and its marine environment, and to summarize how BP’s conduct has violated federal law and regulations,” Abbott wrote.
“From our conversation on the phone, we understand that MMS is already aware that undersea manifolds have been leaking and that major flow lines must already be replaced,” Abbott wrote. “Failure of this critical undersea equipment has potentially catastrophic environmental consequences….it threatens a catastrophic event which could dwarf the Exxon Valdez or Alaskan pipeline spill disasters.”
According to wire reports, scientists at the MMS were repeatedly silenced for voicing concerns about drilling’s environmental impact.