Audubon has a good article talking about some of the process that went into Shell being granted permission to return to the Arctic this past year, and some of the regulations that actually slowed them down a bit.
It’s an enraging article, because it mentions a lot of ways in which Shell’s pressure on various levels of government meant that staff were forced to work long hours, and were actually unable to give their work the attention it was due, because the most important thing, apparently, was to find a way to give the big corporation what it wanted.
[Shell president] Odum met in 2014 with then-presidential counselor John Podesta to discuss Chukchi drilling, though the exact details are unknown. The following year Putnam [a wildlife biologist working w/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] began noticing leaders within the USFWS’s parent agency, the Department of the Interior, discussing in conference calls how to accommodate Shell’s demands. “Some people were working on various options—how we could interpret our regulations in such a way that were favorable that would allow Shell to do what they wanted to do,” he says. “When there’s discussion about changing the meaning of the regulations specifically to accommodate a company like Shell, then that started to become concerning for me.” By law, rulemaking is a public process. “These discussions that were taking place behind the scenes, with no input or public accountability, were getting to the point that I simply wanted to put on the record that I had concerns.”
In a May 26 email, Putnam unloaded. “Shell has clearly stated that they think minimizing disturbance to walruses is irrelevant,” he wrote to his then-boss, Mary Colligan, who is now the USFWS’s Alaska assistant regional director. “Shell insists it is not they who must comply with Federal regulations, but we who should change the regulations to accommodate Shell.”
Putnam then addressed the “voices” within the Interior Department that he says wanted to reinterpret the rules without involving the public. “I think it would be disingenuous, mendacious, and unethical,” he wrote. “Such a course of action may even be illegal.” If Shell were successful at skirting walrus-protection measures, what would come next? Would oil companies quietly try to lift industrial noise limits in the Arctic? Or weaken measures protecting denning polar bears? “Where,” he wrote, “would it end?”
. . . While USFWS scientists fought to protect marine mammals, they did so under crushing time constraints and at the expense of other conservation efforts. Meanwhile, at the Interior agency tasked with approving Shell’s oil leases and exploration plan, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), decision makers authorized overtime, weekend, and holiday work to deliver Shell a speedy decision, while failing to keep pace with climate and ecosystem science.
These findings mirror, in part, a new investigative report, released December 7 by Interior’s Inspector General’s office. It detailed how some BOEM employees considered the agency’s timeline so aggressive that, in the words of one professional, a key environmental analysis was “absolutely compromised” and “full of errors.”
In addition, Odum contacted the Interior Secretary (who oversees BOEM) and requested she “‘devote the resources necessary to removing, expeditiously, any current regulatory obstacles” that might slow down his company’s plans. Odum encouraged Jewell to ‘obtain any necessary additional resources to complete the work’ on Shell’s schedule.” Because what is most important is accommodating the company’s schedule, not doing the work well or properly. So people had to work weekends, had requests for time off or even visitors to the office put under more review, and were basically forced to do nothing other than cater to Shell. Several people quit or retired early as a result. Critical reports had almost no time for review, and some ended up with significant errors.
Another concerning statement in the article is this:
. . . Interior officials acknowledged the rush. They said it wasn’t designed to help Shell but rather to shield the department from “blame” if Shell missed out on drilling in 2015.
I know that government regulatory agencies are under the threat of having their funding (and thus staffing) cut if they don’t accommodate some corporation that has good friends in Congress; I can only assume that was the “blame” they were trying to avoid. So: better to do a rushed, terrible job, because the corporation has a schedule that is unrealistic. (But why would Shell – or other companies – want a schedule that was realistic for the agencies to do a good job? The answers from a thorough, proper review might not be favorable to them.)
Former and current Interior staffers say BOEM’s efforts to accommodate Shell are not unusual. “Once you’ve granted a lease, there is internal pressure to propagate the regulatory process,” says Paul Bledsoe, who was an aide to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt during the 1990s and more recently advised President Obama’s national commission on the BP oil spill. “There’s certainly pressure from the industry.” Others say the agencies regulating offshore production tend to draw employees sympathetic to drilling—environmentalists rarely study petroleum engineering. Add to that President Obama’s support for Arctic oil, and his desire not to be seen as stifling production, and the scale ends up being tipped.
Despite Shell’s pressure, Putnam and other wildlife biologists stuck to their belief that the drilling would be too much of a disturbance for walruses – and there was no process in place to change the rule in time to allow Shell to have two drills in operation within 15 miles of each other. And so Shell was only able to run one test drill, and it came up dry, and they have decided to leave the Arctic. For now.
I think it’s probably typical at all scales for companies to request exceptions or variances to regulations, and under some circumstances, I think it is a good thing for regulations, and the people responsible for overseeing them, to have flexibility. Regulations can’t predict everything that might happen in the real world. Exceptions aren’t always bad.
However, when there is a mindset at work that what is most important is that the requester be able to engage in their profit-making exercise, on their schedule, and regulations get stretched well past reasonable, such that a really good review of the situation cannot be undertaken, and on top of that the requester blatantly indicates they don’t want to and won’t follow restrictions put in place – that’s a different thing.