PEER Sues BSEE Over Non-response on FOIA Seeking Arctic Drilling Testing Safety Records

11:04 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

The crushed containment dome from Shell's Arctic Challenger

The activist watchdog organization, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), filed suit today in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, against the Federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).  The suit, brought under the Freedom of Information Act, seeks to force BSEE to “disclose records wrongfully withheld in failing to respond within the statutory deadline to Plaintiff’s five FOIA requests.”

PEER, along with other parties, has been trying to unravel what happened in September, in Puget Sound, when testing of the containment dome apparatus Shell hoped to deploy in the Arctic later that month failed catastrophically. Although BSEE responded in November to an FOIA request from Seattle’s KUOW Radio, they have not responded to any of the similar requests from PEER.  Here’s an extract the environmental NGO’s press release on the suit:

The federal agency overseeing offshore oil and gas operations slated for this spring in Arctic waters lacks basic assurances that disastrous spills and other accidents will be prevented or effectively contained, according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). At issue are the safeguards required to protect against such known hazards as sea ice, subsurface ice scour and blowouts, as well as specifications for well design and well integrity control.

A relatively new agency called the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), within the Interior Department, has jurisdiction over offshore drilling operations in federal waters, including the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf. The agency, however, has not been able to respond to series of requests posed by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act asking for records detailing how BSEE will approach issues ranging from sea ice to spill containment.

“We have yet to see any evidence supporting the claim that Interior has upgraded the lax enforcement enabling the BP Gulf spill. In fact, what few records we have been able to pry loose suggest just the opposite,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization today filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “This material on operational safety should be on the world-wide web, not locked away in a proprietary safe.”

What little information BSSE has disclosed raises more doubts about its independence from industry. In September, following an earlier PEER lawsuit, the agency was forced to concede that it had done only partial and cursory testing with no independent analysis of the results for the capping system to prevent a repeat of the large, lengthy Gulf of Mexico blowout in the sensitive Arctic waters.

Since July, Firedoglake has been covering the strange odyssey of the Arctic Challenger, the old barge Shell is converting to one of the main features of its impending Arctic offshore drilling program.  PEER will keep us updated on progress of its five previous FOIA actions, and of this lawsuit.

Meanwhile, yesterday, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced his department’s plan for petroleum development of the region of northwest Alaska known as NPR-A, an area about the size of the state of Maine:

The Interior Department’s plan for managing a vast petroleum reserve on Alaska’s North Slope calls for a roughly 50-50 split between conservation and oil development plus accommodation for a pipeline that could carry offshore Arctic Ocean oil to the trans-Alaska pipeline.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Wednesday announced that the plan will allow for development of nearly 12 million acres within the 23 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an area roughly the size of Indiana.

Salazar said in his announcement that the plan will guide the transition from leasing and exploration to responsible production and transport of the reserve’s oil and gas.

One feature of the plan Salazar introduced is that it appears it will tie in directly to the infrastructure Shell will need to develop to market the oil it intends to produce from its impending offshore production wells.  However, Alaska GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski is concerned that Salazar’s plan doesn’t give energy giants like Shell some sort of blank slate:

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she remained concerned that the plan sets up hurdles for pipelines carrying oil drilled offshore in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas to the trans-Alaska pipeline. Salazar should make it clear, she said, that future environmental review of potential pipeline routes will not prohibit their construction or make them prohibitively costly.

In regard to the PEER lawsuit, it isn’t at all clear why BSEE responded to KUOW‘s FOIA, yet seems to have ignored PEER’s five similar requests.

In regard to Salazar’s December 19th announcement, though Sen. Murkowski was critical of the safeguards Interior seems to have put in place in the plan, Alaska’s other U.S. senator, Mark Begich, was less critical:

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said more than 200 exploration wells have been drilled in the NPR-A since the 1940s and the U.S. Geological Survey estimates reserves at 900 million barrels of technically recoverable oil and 53 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Begich said in a press release that he was pleased that the plan included provisions to transport oil through the reserve but that the Interior Department has not cleared restrictions on petroleum development in the eastern portion.

From my perspective, it seems the Obama administration is bound to support Shell’s endeavors, along with those of other energy companies, in northwestern Alaska, and off its Arctic shores, far more than has any previous administration. Read the rest of this entry →