WASHINGTON — A troubled US government agency tasked with managing oil exploration allowed BP and other oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without first obtaining required permits, a complaint said.
The approvals by the Minerals Management Service (MMS) included greenlighting the well drilled by the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers before burning, sinking and spewing a sea of crude into the gulf, The New York Times reported, citing federal records.
Under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the minerals agency is required to obtain permits before allowing drilling to go ahead in areas where the oil exploration could harm endangered species or marine mammals.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed notice of intent Friday to sue the agency over its non-compliance with the laws, the Department of Interior has approved over 300 drilling operations, three large lease sales and over 100 seismic surveys without the required permits.
"Under (Interior Secretary Ken) Salazar's watch, the Department of the Interior has treated the Gulf of Mexico as a sacrifice area where laws are ignored and wildlife protection takes a backseat to oil-company profits," said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for the environmental advocacy group.
The 60-day notice of intent to sue Salazar and the MMS is a legally required precursor to filing a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act.
"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," Sakashita said in a statement.
"You and I have to follow the law, but Interior Secretary Salazar seems to think that he and the oil companies he is supposedly overseeing do not. That is unacceptable."
MMS also regularly overruled staff biologists and engineers who raised concerns about the safety and environmental impact of drilling proposals in Alaska and the gulf, the Times said, citing current and former scientists with the agency.
In the wake of the oil disaster spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Salazar announced plans Tuesday to split MMS by separating safety oversight from a division that collects royalties from oil and gas firms, in a bid to improve the agency's regulatory responsibilities.
The agency has come under fire since the oil spill as critics said it had grown too cozy with the offshore oil industry it regulates by overlooking safety risks and irregularities.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, seismic exploration surveyes used to search for oil produce sounds loud enough to cause hearing loss in marine mammals, mask communications between the mammals and harm essential activities such as feeding and breeding.
It said a single seismic survey undertaken by scientists in the Gulf of Mexico in 2007 exposed an estimated 3,000 whales and dolphins to dangerous sounds.
Drilling operations can also displace whales from key feeding areas, according to the center, while offshore oil activities can harm marine mammals through pollution, marine debris, vessel strikes and oil spills.
MMS could greatly reduce the impact of oil operations on the species if it complied with the laws by, for example, placing seasonal limitations on seismic surveys when endangered whales are present, the center said.
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