Special Reports

Obama demands new plans from oil firms

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration late Wednesday moved swiftly to plug a hole in its much touted six-month ban on new deepwater drilling when the Interior Department ordered oil companies to overhaul and resubmit dozens of exploration plans that had already been approved but were virtually identical to BP’s and that called major spills and environmental damage “unlikely.”

The action came after McClatchy Newspapers informed the White House and Interior officials that it had reviewed 31 deepwater exploration and development plans approved for the Gulf of Mexico under the Obama administration and found that all of them downplayed the threat of spills to marine life and fisheries.

The language scarcely varied from company to company, suggesting that the plans were pumped out like boilerplate. Of the 31 plans McClatchy Newspapers reviewed, 14 were approved since the April 20 explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

The administration had failed to include the plans in its moratorium, and experts told McClatchy Newspapers that the filings could clear the way for drilling new wells when the ban was lifted. Following inquiries by McClatchy Newspapers to White House and Interior officials, the Bureau of Land Management announced late Wednesday that oil companies would need to resubmit the plans with additional safety information before they would be allowed to drill new wells.

“Pulling back exploration plans and development plans and requiring them to be updated with new information is consistent with this cautious approach and will ensure that new safety standards and risk considerations are incorporated into those planning documents,” BLM Director Bob Abbey said in a brief press release.

In the White House’s initial response to McClatchy Newspapers’ inquiries, spokesman Ben LaBolt said only that a presidential commission investigating the BP spill would also “assess exploration and production plans and could provide options for ways to improve their development and review.”

Less than half an hour later, the Interior Department issued its press release, which came from the BLM, not the Minerals Management Service.

Even as millions of gallons of crude from BP’s well befouled the Gulf of Mexico, oil companies have continued to submit exploration plans. The MMS had received more than two dozen in the past month.

“Interior has very doggedly refused to address this core problem because they realize that’s where the rubber meets the road and the real reform begins,” said Kieran Suckling, the executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that has studied the issue.

“It’s a very cynical ploy. They’re staying away from the real environmental review process because that’s where the stakes are highest for the oil industry.”

While the moratorium had blocked new wells and freezes new drilling permits — the last step before drilling begins — it didn’t stop companies from taking the earlier step of filing exploration and development plans.Experts say these plans are often filled with incomplete or overly hopeful statements about the likelihood of spills, blowouts and ecological damage.

On May 18, four weeks after the blowout preventer on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sent oil gushing into the Gulf, the MMS approved an exploration plan by Petrobras America for Block 697 of the Mississippi Canyon area, the same area where BP was drilling. The Petrobras site is 7,150 feet underwater — nearly one-and-a-half times deeper than where BP was operating.

The Petrobras plan states: “In the unlikely event a blowout were to occur during exploratory operations, the well would most likely bridge over very quickly considering information known about (rock) formation types in the Gulf of Mexico.”

The plan also said that a relief well would take “approximately 7-10 days to drill”; BP’s relief wells aren’t expected to be completed before August, 90 days after the accident.

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