A story in Audubon magazine this month details how regulators cut corners and rushed the work schedule as they worked to accommodate Shell’s plan to drill in the Arctic last summer. The article follows an Inspector General report released last week showing federal scientists felt they were too rushed to do an adequate job on the environmental review of Shell’s proposal.
Barry Yeoman is a freelance writer based in North Carolina who reported the story for Audubon. He combed through thousands of pages of government documents to research the story on the lengths federal agencies went to grant a green light to Shell’s project.
YEOMAN: “There was never a promise to Shell that they would approve Shell’s application. What there was, was a clear direction to the staff — especially at BOEM, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management — that they were to operate at a breakneck pace in order to get Shell some decision on time. That meant working weekends. It meant working holidays. It meant working overtime. It meant working at a pace where, as one high-level Interior staffer said, ‘there was no wiggle room.’ And at the cost of some significant environmental review.”
TOWNSEND: One of the big things you write about is the rule that the drill rigs need to be at least 15 miles apart to protect wildlife, especially walrus. A scientist at the Fish and Wildlife Service had to work hard to preserve that rule. Explain what happened there.
YEOMAN: “So the thought was if you have multiple rigs in the Arctic all drilling at the same time, they have to be at least 15 miles apart so that walrus aren’t flooded with noise, and they have an escape route. This was a part of a much larger rule that governed how much a driller could harm walrus and polar bear while drilling in the Chukchi Sea. And Shell wanted to drill 9 miles apart because the best places to drill — to maximize their time and their money — were 8.9 miles apart. And Shell was asking to be released from the 15-mile rule, which there was no clear way of doing. And that became the real central issue at Fish and Wildlife.”
TOWNSEND: And in the end Shell wasn’t able to find a way around the 15-mile rule. Do you think that shows that the system is working as intended? Even a company putting huge pressure on the agencies… the rule did win out in the end.
YEOMAN: “Well, certainly at a surface level… yes. The rule won. It was held firm. And as a result Shell only had time to drill one well this summer. It was a dud, and as a result they’re pulling out. What I heard from a biologist at Fish and Wildlife was that because they didn’t envision having two drills in the same area and only one of them drilling, they didn’t really define what ‘active rig’ meant. And so what you have are two rigs… both of which are fully staffed, both have noisy anchoring operations, both have helicopter support. There are two noisy, industrial operations happening 9 miles apart. And so it was absolutely a victory for the letter of the law. It’s not as clear if the walrus won.”
TOWNSEND: The Obama administration jettisoned the Minerals Management Service because of revelations of regulators being far too close to industry… taking gifts, etc. How much do you think the climate and culture has changed within BOEM and other federal regulatory agencies?
YEOMAN: “I think the climate in the agencies spun off from MMS is much better. BOEM is a more professional operation,everybody I talk to agrees, than its predecessor. No question about that. It gives a stronger voice to people making environmental arguments. It’s staffed by people who have a sense of stewardship. And at the same time, BOEM has an inherent bias written into its mission, that it is there for the purpose of promoting drilling. So I don’t think there’s some orgy of greed, or inappropriate closeness to the industry, that’s driving any of this. I think that this is basically an agency that’s working within its mandate… which is the promotion of drilling on the outer-continental shelf.”
Barry Yeoman is a freelance writer. He wrote “The inside story of Shell’s Arctic assault” for Audubon magazine.