Video: Mistakes, missed signals, and short-cuts

By Investigative reporter
Dateline NBC
updated 6/4/2010 9:31:39 PM ET 2010-06-05T01:31:39

In 2007, the U.S. government prepared a 924-page report that was supposed to probe the environmental impact of drilling in the very region where BP’s well is now causing untold devastation. But a close read of the U.S. government's “Final Environmental Impact Statement,” which set the stage for the BP well, shows that the document is replete with rosy predictions that now may seem tragically wrong.

Beaches are now coated with thick clumps of oil, but the 2007 statement concluded: "It is unlikely that a spill would be a major threat to recreational beaches, because any impacts would be short term and localized."

The document was prepared by the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the Interior Department agency that is supposed to regulate offshore drilling. 

Today, wetlands that were the sanctuaries of bird and wildlife are clogged thick from the oil still gushing from the undersea well.  That contradicts the predictions of the MMS in 2007: "Impacts to wetland habitats from an oil spill…. would be expected to be low and temporary."

Indeed, while the analysis warns that sea turtles and birds could die as a result of spills, it generally  doesn't predict high risks to the environment.

Take commercial fishing: Whole fleets have been docked along the Gulf of Mexico, while fishermen whose livelihoods are threatened, wonder what they will do next.  But the U.S. government conclusion in 2007 was: "The effect of proposed-action-related oil spills on commercial fishing is expected to cause less than a 1 percent decrease in standing stocks of any population, commercial fishing efforts, landings, or value of those landings. Any affected commercial fishing activity would recover within 6 months."

And what about the problems of blowouts themselves? The Minerals Management Service back in 2007 wrote that “blowouts” were “expected to have temporary localized impacts on water quality.”

The 2007 study is important because in 2009, BP was granted a waiver – called a “categorical exclusion” -- from federal law requiring detailed environmental impact statements. Companies often received such waivers. In this case it meant BP had the right to drill at “Mississippi Canyon Block 252” without a thorough environmental impact statement. The reason: there was already the MMS’s large-scale study, the 2007 document that found minimal threats.

“They pretended they had already taken a careful look,” says Holly Doremus, an environmental law professor at University of California at Berkeley. “But it seems badly wrong. The bottom line was that the environmental analysis was completely unrealistic.”

Since the April 20 blowout, the MMS, which has come under blistering criticism, has made it plain that it will review the “categorical exclusions” that let companies avoid performing their own environmental impact statements before drilling. The agency also is imposing a 6-month moratorium on new deepwater oil wells and has announced that it is reviewing all drilling plans, including ones that have already been approved.

In a statement to Dateline, the MMS said: "We have launched a full investigation of the oil spill and are in the process of implementing new safety requirements to ensure this doesn’t happen again."

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