The Minerals Management Service has withheld information from regional staff in Alaska and has not had sufficient guidelines in place to analyze offshore drilling risks in the region, a government audit shows.
The Government Accountability Office found that MMS's Alaska OCS Region shares information selectively, against agency policy, which directs that information -- including proprietary data from industry -- be shared with all staff involved in environmental reviews.
Regional managers told GAO that the need-to-know policy allows them to properly protect proprietary information, ensures everyone involved in National Environmental Policy Act analyses works from identical information and helps them to manage staff time so deadlines can be met.
But staff analysts told GAO they believed that these information-sharing practices hindered their ability to complete sound environmental analyses under NEPA. For example, five of them said they and other subject-matter experts had had difficulty obtaining clear development scenario information. One analyst said he was not certain where a pipeline would cross the Alaska Peninsula or what other infrastructure would be needed for a particular proposed lease sale.
GAO also found that although Interior Department policy directs its agencies to prepare handbooks providing guidance on how to implement NEPA, MMS lacks such a guidance handbook.
"The lack of a comprehensive guidance handbook, combined with high staff turnover in recent years, has left the process for meeting NEPA requirements ill defined for the analysts charged with developing NEPA documents," the report says. "This absence has also left unclear MMS's policy on what constitutes a significant environmental impact."
From 2003 to 2008, 11 to 50 percent of the analysts in Alaska's Environmental Assessment Section left each year, resulting in nearly complete turnover within a staff that ranged from 10 to 14 people. Nearly half the analysts in the section told GAO that the process for writing NEPA analyses is unclear and that a NEPA handbook would help.
MMS officials told GAO that the agency has not developed a comprehensive NEPA guidance handbook because the agency is small and can rely instead on institutional knowledge and because they believe a handbook would be difficult to keep current.
GAO also found that guidance is lacking for conducting and documenting NEPA-required analyses to address environmental and cultural sensitivities, which have often been the topic of litigation over Alaskan offshore oil and gas development. In addition to litigation, MMS has also been vulnerable to allegations by stakeholders and former agency scientists of suppression or alteration of their work on environmental issues, GAO said.
GAO recommended that MMS set a deadline for issuing a comprehensive NEPA handbook and take steps to ensure information sharing. The Interior Department generally agreed with GAO's findings and concurred with the recommendations, saying it will issue the guidance by the end of this year.
"GAO confirmed what we have known all along, there is something rotten in Alaska," said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. "Good decisionmaking requires solid information, and that has been missing from the Alaska MMS decisionmaking for some time. Now it turns out that MMS intentionally kept key information from its own experts. This is outrageous."
The report focused mostly on the estimated amount of oil and gas in the North Aleutian Basin, which includes Bristol Bay. But the estimates may be largely moot for now, since the Obama administration said last week that under its plans, Bristol Bay will be kept closed to production because of fisheries, tourism and environmental values.
MMS estimates that "substantial amounts" of natural gas could exist in the area, although due to a lack of data, the estimates range widely and the upper ranges are highly uncertain. The agency said there is a 19 in 20 chance that the basin contains at least 20 million barrels of oil and 400 billion cubic feet of natural gas, and a 1 in 20 chance of as much as 2.5 billion barrels of oil and 23.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
The report said that the estimates are much lower than those for other offshore areas but high enough to generate oil industry interest, although the needed infrastructure would likely cost billions of dollars.
Click here to read the GAO report.