Wed, Jul 07, 2010 - Page 7 News List

Agency said spill risk to wildlife ‘low’

‘RUSSIAN ROULETTE’ The Fish and Wildlife Service signed off on a biological evaluation that considered risks based only on oil spills of up to 15,000 barrels

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE AND AP , TEXAS CITY, TEXAS AND NEW YORK

A brown pelican, covered with oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, swims at Sandy Point near Venice, Louisiana, on June 15.

PHOTO: AFP

The US federal agency charged with protecting endangered species such as the brown pelican and the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle signed off on the Minerals Management Service’s conclusion that deep-water drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico posed no significant risk to wildlife, despite evidence that a spill of even moderate size could be disastrous, federal documents show.

By law, the minerals service, before selling oil leases in the Gulf, must submit an evaluation of the potential biological impact on threatened species to the Fish and Wildlife Service, whose responsibilities include protecting endangered species on land. Although the wildlife agency cannot block lease sales, it can ask for changes in the assessment if it believes it is inadequate or it can insist on conducting its own survey of potential threats, something the agency has frequently done in the past.

However, in a letter dated Sept. 14, 2007, and obtained by the New York Times, the agency agreed with the minerals service’s characterization that the chances that deep-water drilling would result in a spill that would pollute critical habitat was “low.”

The agency signed off on the minerals service’s biological evaluation, even though that assessment considered only the risks to wildlife based on spills of 1,000 barrels (159,000 liters) to 15,000 barrels — a minuscule amount compared with the hundreds of thousands of barrels now spewing into the gulf. The assessment also noted that even such modest spills carried up to a 27 percent risk of oil reaching the critical habitat for some endangered species.

Much of the first wave of criticism over the federal government’s part in the Deepwater Horizon disaster has focused on the dual role of the minerals service (renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement last month), which was responsible for both promoting offshore drilling through the sale of leases and for policing it. However, environmental groups were also critical of other federal agencies that have watchdog roles and could have exercised their authority to protect the species.

“The Endangered Species Act requires caution, but federal wildlife agencies allowed offshore oil drilling to play Russian roulette with endangered species in the Gulf,” said Daniel Rohlf, clinical director of the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center at Lewis & Clark Law School.

“Would people get on a plane if they knew it had a one in four chance of a major mechanical problem?” Rohlf said. “Federal wildlife agencies made conscious choices — under the guise of science — to allow offshore oil drilling with an identical risk of serious harm to endangered species.”

Deborah Fuller, the endangered species program coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife’s office in Lafayette, Louisiana, led the team that reviewed the minerals service’s biological assessment. She said that her office recognized that a big spill would be disastrous to wildlife and that it made suggestions for increasing preparedness for the cleanup of a spill as part of an informal consultation on the biological review.

However, she said her office did not challenge the minerals service’s assessment of the risk.

“We all know an oil spill is catastrophic, but what is the likelihood it will happen?” Fuller asked.

She said her office had considered that any likelihood under 50 percent would not be enough to require the protections of her office.

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