Since the start of the Obama administration, an Interior Department agency has authorized more than 300 drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico without first obtaining permits from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, according to published reports and the notice of intent to file a law suit by an environmental non-profit.
The law suit announcement by the Center for Biological Diversity on Friday names Interior Secretary Ken Salazar as the intended defendant for bypassing permitting from NOAA, whose responsibility it is to enforce the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
In a story Friday, The New York Times, which counted three lease sales, 103 seismic blasting projects and 346 drilling plans approved by the Minerals Management Service without NOAA permits, reported that NOAA in consultations and writing has repeatedly warned that the extractive activities effectively were illegal without permits.
"Federal records indicate that these consultations ended with NOAA instructing the minerals agency that continued drilling in the gulf was harming endangered marine mammals and that the agency needed to get permits to be in compliance with federal law," The New York Times reported.
In September 2009, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco wrote to the minerals agency that it had created a pattern of understating the risks of harm of a major oil spill in the gulf and the frequency of spills.
The New York Times said minerals agency scientists — speaking anonymously — have made similar claims about their agency.
However, the apparently un-permitted work continued, and on April 20, British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded, killing 11 workers and beginning an uninterrupted eruption of crude oil into the gulf; it is an environmental crisis that continues to frustrate control or even certain definition.
Various experimental operations to completely stop the flow have failed. How much is projecting from the well head more than a mile down is uncertain with estimates across a wide range.
Reports over the weekend indicate much of the oil may be at depths that defy location and direction.
Roffs Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service Inc., which has been monitoring the rupture, reports satellite imaging indicates oil is being pulled into the loop current, which runs clockwise around the gulf until it empties into the gulf stream south of Florida.
Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Gloucester Daily Times that her organization's research has not uncovered what steps, if any, NOAA took in light of the continued un-permitted extraction activities authorized by the Minerals Management Service.
But she said it seems that NOAA "could have done more, they were too trusting."
On its Web site, the Minerals Management Service said "it was reviewing" whether it gave BP and other oil companies permission to drill in the gulf without permits from NOAA or the Fish and Wildlife Service that are required by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
NOAA declined comment.
The emerging story of oil companies allowed to conduct seismic surveys and drill for oil with cursory oversight and without permits has produced angry responses from the national fishing community, which before the failure of the BP operation, perceived a double standard in the way oil and fishing enforcement is treated by the government.
Todd Zinser, inspector general of the Commerce Department, in January released a 28 page report on a six month investigation into allegations of excessive and capricious use of authority and vindictive acts against fishermen by agents of NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement.
The report generally validated the allegations, and announced the office would do additional work focusing on a handful of cases.
Dale J. Jones, the longtime head of the office, was apparently removed in March after Zinser filed an un-released report with Lubchenco on a mass document shredding ordered by Jones during the final phase of the IG's investigation.
An interim successor was named, but Jones' status was never clarified, despite repeated efforts by members of Congress.
Zinser revealed the document shredding in an appearance before a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing on March 3 in Washington.
A day earlier, before a different panel meeting in Gloucester, the House Oversight and Government Reform Domestic Policy Subcommittee, Zinser said there was evidence that Jones had charged overseas travel to an $8.4 million "asset forfeiture fund," made up of fines.
Zinser's report noted that the NOAA police force led by Jones, who had been chief of the Hagerstown, MD force, was made up largely of criminal officers even though the vast majority of its work was enforcing administrative laws, the Magnuson Act and the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection Acts as well as others.
Zinser also noted that the police officers and Office of General Counsel which converts investigations into cases, had made fishermen often feel as if they were criminals when written up for minor violations.
Nils Stolpe, a fishing columnist and industry advisor, noted in a column Friday, (Fishnets USA) an April 7 interview with administrator Jane Lubchenco on Web site TakePart where she was quoted saying that "at the global scale, probably the one thing currently having the most impact (on the oceans) is overfishing and destructive gear."
Citing the September 2009 letter from Lubchenco to the minerals agency, Stolpe went on to wonder "why was there no substantive follow-up by her agency over the intervening a half year before the Deepwater Horizon disaster?
"Environmental groups push congress and the regulators relentlessly to restrict fishing with very flawed and arbitrary science knowing full well that none of these species are in real biological trouble," said Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance.
RFA organized and was the permit-holder of record for the national rally of fishing forces in Washington last February to lobby Congress to write flexibility into the Magnuson Stevens Act so as to give NOAA clear authority to lengthen fishing stock rebuilding regimens.
"The potential effects of a major oil spill for short and long term effects on the marine ecosystem outweigh any fishing effects that are currently regulated ... yet those groups pay no attention to the regulatory and legislative mandates for the oil industry because of the funding they receive through big oil. They have proven to be no more than whores for an ideology."
"NOAA's ark needs to protect all species," said Mayor Carolyn Kirk. "The agency could do noble work but they seem to have gone astray. It is difficult to understand how they can claim environmental triumph over the fishing industry on one hand and sacrifice endangered turtles to the oil industry on the other."
On Saturday, The New York Times reported that BP had refused permission to scientists who want to take instruments to the ocean floor to gauge the volume of the oil coming from the well.
Government estimates are 5,000 barrels a day, but scientists studying video of the gushing from the well have tentatively estimated the volume at between 25,000 and 80,000 barrels a day.
In a Sunday letter, Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern (commercial) Fisheries Association, cited the story and asked readers to "tell me how BP can stop government and academic institutions from measuring giant oil plumes in the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico. BP doesn't have the right to tell the government or any scientists what or where they can conduct research. The darn water is ours not BP's."