New York – Despite a federal moratorium on offshore oil drilling, new permits and controversial environmental waivers for oil rigs continue to be granted, sparking criticism from policymakers and environmentalists.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama issued a six-month extension of the moratorium on permits and environmental waivers for the drilling of new deepwater wells. The original moratorium was ordered following the Apr. 20 explosion of the BP oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, which has become the worst oil spill disaster in U.S. history.
However, records show that since the original moratorium was issued, new permits and environmental waivers on existing drilling projects continue to be granted regularly. It is not clear whether the moratorium extension applies to new drilling on existing wells or merely new operations.
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Since the moratorium, the New York Times reports, at least seven new permits for drilling and five environmental waivers have been granted. The majority of the approved permits are for the same type of work as that on Deepwater Horizon prior to the explosion.
Six of the waivers are for waters that are deeper than the location of Deepwater Horizon. With increased depth, drilling operations become more difficult and therefore more dangerous. The Deepwater rig was drilling at a depth of approximately 1,500 metres at the time of the explosion. Four of the new wells extend deeper than 2,700 metres.
According to the Department of the Interior, the federal moratorium was intended only to halt the issuance of permits and waivers related to the drilling of new oil wells. The order was not meant to stop new work on existing drilling projects.
In the five weeks since the explosion and resulting oil spill, which is estimated to be pouring 12,000 to 25,000 barrels of oil per day into the gulf, critics have been vocal about the lack of corporate oversight and number of waivers being granted to drilling projects.
Citing these concerns, Obama criticised the lax system of permit issuance: “It seems as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies,” he said in a May 14 address. “That cannot and will not happen anymore.”
Daniel J. Rohlf, a law professor at Lewis and Clark Law School who specialises in environmental issues, told IPS that “Federal regulators have been misapplying or straight out violating federal law for quite some time in authorising offshore oil and gas drilling.”
One of the most outspoken critics of the current system have been environmentalists who are outraged that waivers have been granted through a legal provision intended for projects that present minimal or no risk to the environment.
Friday morning, BP’s top official, CEO Tony Hayward, upgraded his characterisation of the oil spill to a “very significant environmental crisis and catastrophe”.
In addition to the disastrous environmental impact, many critics are concerned about the safety of drilling operations.
“The moratorium does not even cover the dangerous drilling that caused the problem in the first place,” explained Rohlf.
One of the types of permits still being issued is what is known as a bypass permit, which allows a rig operator to drill around a mechanical problem in the original hole in order to make changes to the ongoing drilling operation. Five days prior to the explosion, Deepwater Horizon received a bypass permit. Faulty cementing of the original hole is thought to be one of the causes of the explosion.
When questioned about the decision to continue granting new permits to existing operations, Department of Interior officials responded by saying that some of the approved procedures are necessary to ensure the safety of the wells.
However, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has categorised some of the approved drilling techniques as just as dangerous as the drilling of new wells. Since 2002, there have been at least three major accidents on rigs that have been caused by the drilling procedures still permitted, according to the New York Times.
If no changes are made, ongoing and future drilling operations will continue to threaten the safety and security of workers and the environment.
“We need a top to bottom evaluation and overhaul of federal regulations that govern oil and gas exploration and production,” says Rohlf. “We need to rethink the economics of how we regulate oil and gas.”
On Thursday, Elizabeth Birnbaum, head of the Minerals Management Service, the agency responsible for issuing new drilling leases and overseeing the safety of existing projects, resigned amid charges of lax enforcement and a cozy relationship between employees and the oil and gas industry.
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