U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said oil drilling in Gulf posed low risk to endangered wildlife in 2007 memo
NEW ORLEANS — Less than three years before the Gulf oil spill erupted, federal regulators concluded several offshore drilling projects posed a low risk to endangered wildlife -- a determination that contrasts sharply with recent scenes of birds struggling to survive the slick.
A September 2007 memo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said large oil spills from the proposed Gulf drilling projects under review were "low-probability events" that weren't likely to affect brown pelicans, sea turtles and other animals with Gulf Coast habitats.
The memo suggests that the former Mineral Management Service wasn't the only federal agency that failed to identify and attempt to minimize the risks of deepwater drilling.
The memo, first reported by The New York Times, concluded that the chance of oil from an offshore spill of at least 1,000 barrels reaching endangered species or their habitats was no greater than 26 percent.
The agency didn't challenge the MMS's assessment of potential danger from 11 Gulf oil and gas lease sales, which included the well that the Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling when an April 20 blowout killed 11 workers and started leaking millions of gallons of oil.
MMS was renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement last month amid criticism that the agency was lax in its oversight of the companies it regulates.
Stacy Small, a wildlife ecologist for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the Fish and Wildlife Service could have demanded a stricter review of the projects' safety risks.
"I don't think they seized that opportunity," Small said. "This really points out the need for independent, third-party peer review, especially when the consequences are so severe."
The Interior Department has said it will review the process for how offshore oil and gas operations are evaluated under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
"Where those processes can be improved, we will strengthen them. Where there are loopholes, we will close them," Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said in a May 14 statement.
Chris Tollefson, a spokesman for the wildlife service, said the Interior Department "is looking at a wide range of questions the oil spill raises," including MMS' environmental review processes. He wouldn't elaborate Monday.
Dan Rohlf, a Lewis & Clark Law School professor who teaches wildlife law, said the documents show the Fish and Wildlife Service had a policy of discounting risks to endangered species, in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
"If you have a lot of relatively small risks, over time those small risks add up until it's a virtual certainty those events will occur," he said.
Less than three months before the Fish and Wildlife Service issued its memo, the National Marine Fisheries Service also used a MMS biological assessment to help it conclude that the same Gulf leases, including BP's for Deepwater Horizon, were "not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of threatened or endangered species."
However, that assessment did allow for the possibility of a major spill -- described as one exceeding 420,000 gallons -- and detailed its potential to harm different turtle, whale and sturgeon populations.
Rohlf said both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service "are generally very reluctant to be a significant barrier to the everyday operations of [other] federal agencies," like MMS.
"They have not seemed willing to risk the political heat that that would entail," he said.
-- Michael Kunzelman, Associated Press
Photo: An oil-soaked brown pelican rests on the tarball-littered beach of Horn Island, Miss., on July 1. Credit: William Colgin / Reuters