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Offshore drilling pact will give NOAA scientists more say

May 23, 2011 |  1:52 pm

Oilrigs

The new agency that regulates offshore drilling has signed a kind of peace treaty with the nation's official oceanographers, giving them more input into where and how oil companies explore the federal waters of the outer continental shelf.

The memorandum of understanding between the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), announced Monday, follows recommendations from a presidential commission investigating last year's BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The panel noted that under previous regulation regimes, NOAA's scientists had little more influence on where and how federal leases were auctioned than did the general public.

"A more robust and formal interagency consultation process is needed, with the goal of identifying precise areas that should be excluded from lease sales because of their high ecological importance or sensitivity," the panel concluded.

The former agency that regulated offshore drilling in federal waters, the Minerals Managmenet Service, was disbanded after the BP spill, amid scandals that showed it had become beholden to the industry it was charged with regulating. The service often did not include NOAA's scientific findings in its final leasing decisions.

The accord will require regulators to "explain in writing any decision not to incorporate a comment by NOAA," and allow the agency to respond to those explanations.

“BOEMRE and NOAA have enjoyed a long and productive relationship, but there is room for improvement," said bureau director Michael R. Bromwich. "We can and will broaden and enhance the communication, cooperation and collaboration between our agencies.”

The two agencies will work more closely on environmental assessments of drilling. Past environmental assessments approved by the agency included little detail about spill contingencies and contained inaccurate science, including listing species not found in the Gulf of Mexico.

Monday's move signals that the bureau will make a greater effort to base its regulatory decisions on the best available science, and to develop and deploy "environmentally sound and sustainable offshore renewable energy technologies," including wind farms.

The agencies also agreed to increase collaboration on oil spill exercises and response issues. 

"This is an important step forward," said Marilyn Heiman, director of the arctic program at the Pew Environmental Group. "This is more evidence that BOEMRE’s approach to offshore drilling is changing from being an agency that has been captured by the oil industry to one that truly is interested in regulating the offshore drilling industry."

Related:

Federal scientists urge against offshore drilling plans

Shell Alaska drops plan for arctic offshore drilling this year

Effort launched to prevent drilling in Arctic

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: Oil rigs sit idle off the coast of Louisiana last year. Credit: Lee Celano/Reuturs

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