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June 3, 2010

NOAA chief backed off citing oil ocean danger

Seven months before a deepwater oil well explosion brought an ecological catastrophe epicentered in the Gulf of Mexico, federal oceans administrator Jane Lubchenco identified off-shore drilling as an "underestimated" cause of harm to the seas.

But Lubchenco's September stand on the dangers of ocean oil drilling, documented in an interagency letter obtained by the Times, does not show in more recent public statements, made closer to the April 20 explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling complex that killed 11 workers and began flooding the Gulf and Gulf coast with crude oil in a crisis that remains out of control.

In a prestigious address at the Smithsonian Institute, and in an environmental website interview, Lubchenco's analysis and listing of the "stressors" of the seas emphasizes "overfishing" and "destructive" fishing gear, while oil drilling does not warrant even a mention.

"Depleted fisheries, endangered turtles and marine mammals, dead zones, bleached corals and outbreaks of jellyfish, harmful algal blooms, and diseases are all symptoms of the population and ecosystem changes underway," Lubchenco and her co-author, Laura E. Petes, a former student of hers at Oregon State University, wrote in a footnoted March 2 lecture.

"These changes are the result of myriad interacting stressors, including overfishing, chemical and nutrient pollution, use of destructive fishing gear, climate change, ocean acidification, habitat loss, and introduction of invasive species."

The 11th annual Roger Revelle Commemorative Lecture — honoring a late scientist who performed early work on global warming — was delivered by Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Petes four weeks before President Obama, on March 31, announced an aggressive offshore drilling plan for all three coasts and Alaska.

Lubchenco's spokespeople Thursday did not provide an explanation for the absence of oil drilling in her March short list of ocean "stressors" — even though, in September, she conveyed to the Minerals Management Service a blunt critique and refutation of its claims that off-shore oil drilling had a clean record and was safe.

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