CEQ, DOI launch joint review of NEPA procedures at MMS

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, May 14 -- The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and US Department of the Interior announced a joint review of the US Minerals Management Service’s National Environmental Policy Act procedures on May 14. The review specifically will examine MMS NEPA procedures for oil and gas development, the two federal entities added.

The action was a clear response to reports that BP PLC sought and received a categorical exclusion from preparing a full environmental impact statement under NEPA for its Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. Crude oil began to spill from the well on Apr. 22 when the Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible rig ruptured connecting lines as it sank 2 days after exploding and catching fire.

“We remain focused on providing every resource we can to support the massive response effort under way at the Deepwater Horizon, but we are also aggressively and quickly investigating what happened and what can be done to prevent this type of incident in the future,” said US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

“A review of the overall NEPA procedures for the MMS is an important part of the ongoing comprehensive and thorough investigation of this incident, but it also continues the reform effort that we have been undertaking at MMS and throughout Interior,” he continued.

At his May 11 press conference where he announced that MMS’s safety and environmental regulatory operations would be spun off from its leasing, permitting, and royalty collection operations, Salazar said that he was examining categorical exclusions (CXs) at MMS before the rig accident and spill.

Part of BLM reforms
He included new guidance for US Bureau of Land Management field managers in considering CX requests on Jan. 6 when he announced a series of onshore leasing reforms at that DOI agency. Under the new policy, Salazar said at that time, BLM would not approve CXs in cases involving “extraordinary circumstances” such as impacts to protected species, historic or cultural resources, or human health and safety in accordance with CEQ guidelines.

Responding to questions as he testified before congressional committees on May 11 and 12, BP America Inc. Chairman and Pres. LaMar McKay said the company sought a CX for its Macondo well in the gulf because MMS conducted a full EIS for the lease sale in which it offered the tract and a subsequent environmental assessment for a smaller grid including the lease site.

In February, CEQ proposed several steps to modernize NEPA which included regularly reviewing federal agencies’ use of CXs. Other proposed measures included issuing draft guidance on when and how federal agencies must consider greenhouse gas emissions and climate change in their proposed actions; clarifying when a finding of no significant impact is appropriate and specifying when it is necessary to monitor environmental mitigation commitments; and enhancing public tools for reporting on NEPA activities.

“Every agency in the executive branch of the federal government has a responsibility to implement NEPA,” said CEQ Chairwoman Nancy Sutley. “NEPA assigns CEQ the task of ensuring that federal agencies meet their obligations under the act.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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