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Updated on May 23, 2010

Is this our future, failure to prepare?

It was business as usual at the Minerals Management Service on April 6, 2009. The deck chairs had been rearranged but on the same deck on the same leaky ship. Three months after Barack Obama, the agent of change, had been sworn in as President of the United States MMS did yet again what it seems to do so well, what it had been doing for years: it set aside its own rules, ignored law and common sense and put private profit above the public good. It suspended caution and common sense and technical reality in its headlong rush to please this nation's rich and powerful oil lobby. On April 20 of this year, 54 weeks after MMS granted a categorical exemption to BP in approving its application for a permit to operate the Deepwater Horizon oil drill rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the deepest-ever oil drilling operation in the world suffered a massive blow out. The resulting fireball and explosion consumed the massive drill rig and vaporized eleven people. MMS issued its categorical exemption on April 6; it had been filed on March 10. The blow out at Deepwater Horizon has been belching oil into Gulf for longer than that already and there is no assured remedy in sight.

Did this have to happen? Is there a lesson in this for all of us? What does this say about the way in which MMS conducted the review of the Cape Wind application for the construction of this nation's fist commercial scale wind farm in Nantucket Sound?

MMS has been issuing waivers and categorical exemptions for years, allowing oil and gas exploration projects to proceed without necessary disclosures and safety mechanisms. In the past several years there have been many blowouts at Gulf of Mexico oil drilling sites, but until now the results have been acceptable. Mechanical failure is a normal part of any industrial process and in spite of the many blow outs that have occurred in the Gulf of Mexico over the past few years, all have been minor incidents in terms of the volume of oil escaping into the Gulf and none has resulted in environmental emergencies. Proper planning and equipment were in place.

However, in announcing his approval of the Cape Wind project, Interior Secretary Salazar not only made conspicuously incorrect statements about the project's size, he also proclaimed that Cape Wind would be the first of many such offshore wind developments on the Atlantic Coast. Therefore, Cape Wind's review and approval are to be the precedent for all future such reviews. Given that Salazar said, after the explosion at Deepwater Horizon, that he thought ".....everything was in its proper place..." it is fair to assume that the Secretary was equally ignorant of the details of Cape Wind when he made his grand announcement in Boston on April 28.

MMS has pressured the Untied States Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration to whitewash radar issues arising from Cape Wind. The agency has changed science submitted to it by sister agencies such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Environmental Protection Agency. It has failed to coordinate with local officials any plan for disaster response at the wind farm, including the potential for spilling tens of thousands of gallons of oil into Nantucket Sound's fragile marine ecosystem. An eighteen month investigation into the MMS review of Cape Wind by the Interior Department's Inspector General describes instance after instance of MMS failures and omissions but concludes nonetheless that the review was sound.

BP is the largest oil and gas exploration company doing business in the Untied States. Their political power is clear, the proof spreading over one hundred thirty-miles long on the Gulf of Mexico and washing up on Gulf beaches. In spite of the fact that Deepwater Horizon was the deepest-ever oil drilling operation in history, it was granted a categorical exemption from critical safety and review standards. There were not, at the time the rig began drilling, and there are not even now, any submersible vehicles designed specifically for repairing problems on oil drilling equipment at such extreme depths...there are none in the world. Certain emergency equipment was omitted as a way to save money, such as a remotely activated blow out protector and there is a long history of failed and blown out wells installed using Halliburton as a subcontractor; Halliburton was a key subcontractor on the Deepwater Horizon rig. In the month or so prior to drilling beginning MMS itself failed to perform more than a dozen required inspections of the rig and its equipment. Destiny can be delayed for only so long.

Why are so few fingers pointing at the leading culprits in this disaster, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Minerals Management Service? Why does anyone take as a serious, much less an honest plan what is now being proposed: that MMS be divided into separate review and permitting/oversight agencies? Why should we believe that the same people who oversaw this disaster in the Gulf and the flawed review of Cape Wind will do anything differently in the future, or that the federal government will finally grant proper funding levels to critically important federal review agencies? Agencies, new or old, are only as effective as their management. MMS failed miserably in the Deepwater Horizon case, as they did in the cape Wind case.

Cape Wind is only the tip of the iceberg.

Copyright 2010 by Peter A. Kenney


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