Environmental Groups Call On Federal Government To End Fast-Tracking Of Offshore Oil Drilling Projects In Gulf Of Mexico

Six environmental groups submitted a petition yesterday to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) calling on the agency to end a routine practice of fast-tracking approval for offshore oil and gas projects.

The U.S. Interior Department first adopted a “categorical exclusion” for oil and gas activities in 1981. The exclusion allowed exploration and development plans to win approval for much of the Gulf of Mexico without undergoing the site-specific analysis normally required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

For more than 40 years, the repeated invocation of this exclusion has contributed to lax governmental oversight and a failure to grapple with the harmful effects of long-term oil and gas extraction in the Gulf.

BOEM relied on this exclusion to approve BP’s exploration plans for the Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling project, which caused the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Although the National Commission that investigated the disaster concluded that use of categorical exclusions contributed to a systemic breakdown in BOEM’s environmental review process, the agency has not stopped invoking them on a routine basis. In the past five years, BOEM approved about 560 out of the 600 development plans submitted using the exclusion and about 90 out of the 400 exploration plans submitted.

The groups — Healthy Gulf, Center for Biological Diversity, Bayou City Waterkeeper, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and Earthjustice — are requesting that BOEM immediately take steps to repeal or eliminate the use of categorical exclusions for oil and gas exploration and development in the Gulf.

Expedited approvals of oil and gas activity have taken a heavy toll on the Gulf of Mexico. Given the intensification of climate change and the known risks of deepwater drilling in an era of more powerful hurricanes, BOEM has no rationale for the continued use of exclusions.

“In addition to environmental analysis, NEPA processes such as environmental impact statements also allow for critical public engagement through public notices and comment periods,” said Andrew Whitehurst, water programs director for Healthy Gulf. “This use of a categorical exclusion ensures that people concerned with or impacted by oil and gas activities do not have a voice, nor do they have information available to them about predicted impacts from these fast-tracked projects. It’s time BOEM ends this exclusion and follows NEPA guidelines intended to protect our environment and the people that depend on it.”

“It’s way past time to stop giving oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico a free pass. We should be phasing out offshore drilling entirely,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But in the meantime, Gulf operations should get more scrutiny, not a fast-tracked approval. The oil and gas industry has proven it poses a huge risk to ocean ecosystems. The sea turtles, manatees, Rice’s whales and other animals that live in the Gulf deserve better protection.”

“The federal government has been rubber-stamping new oil and gas activity in the Gulf of Mexico for far too long,” said Hallie Templeton, legal director for Friends of the Earth. “Federal officials must stop their nonsensical approval process and instead consider the clear environmental and socioeconomic harms before greenlighting dangerous projects. Assessing the damages of expanded fossil fuel extraction in the Gulf is the very least BOEM can do to protect this sacrifice zone and its communities.”

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