By Ronald E. Bass
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has prompted the Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of Interior to review the Mineral Management Service's (MMS) compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). MMS is the federal agency within the Department of the Interior (DOI) responsible for approving oil and gas exploration and development on the outer continental shelf. This article summarizes MMS's current approach to NEPA and explains the scope and purpose of the review.
Ronald Bass writes, "The explosion and ensuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have caused many critics to ask: Where was NEPA when BP's Deep Water Horizon oil platform was approved by MMS? Was the possibility of a spill ever studied? What mitigation measures were proposed for such an event?"
"In response to these and many related questions, CEQ [Council on Environmental Quality] and DOI opened a critical inquiry into MMS's review and approval of oil and gas exploration and development on the outer continental shelf (OCS)," the author reports. "The review seeks to ascertain how MMS applies NEPA in its planning and review of projects and to identify opportunities for improvement. On May 17, 2010, CEQ sought public comments about the MMS NEPA program. The 30-day public comment period closed June 17."
"Under NEPA, CEQ is responsible for overseeing NEPA compliance by all federal agencies," explains Bass. "This oversight includes issuing NEPA regulations, reviewing the NEPA rules and regulations of other federal agencies, writing guidance, and otherwise assisting federal agencies in complying with the law. Although CEQ rarely conducts an inquiry into an ongoing NEPA programs, the recent (and ongoing) events in the Gulf certainly justify such an effort. The review is expected to answer key questions about the MMS program and recommend changes."
This commentary examines NEPA's legal framework, the MMS tiered approach to NEPA compliance, the scope of the CEQ's review and its findings and recommendations, and recommendations for improving the NEPA process.
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Ronald E. Bass is an environmental planner and attorney. Mr. Bass received his J.D. from the Washington College of Law at American University and is a member of the Washington, D.C. and Maryland Bars. He also holds a master's degree in Environmental Planning from California State University, Sacramento. He is a Senior Regulatory Specialist with ICF International, a consulting firm with an environmental planning and natural resources management practice. Mr. Bass has lectured widely on the California Environmental Quality Act. He is a past president of both the California Chapter of the American Planning Association and the Association of Environmental Professionals.
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