Federal scientists ordered to do half-baked analysis of Alaskan oil-drilling plans, audit finds

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When the Obama administration not long ago went ahead with what could become a major expansion of oil drilling off Alaska's coasts, it did so with full knowledge that its scientists hadn't been able to do a proper environmental review.

That's the upshot from auditors at the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress. And it appears that oil companies' pleas to keep some information secret from the scientists also played a role in the half-baked look at environmental threats, a new GAO report states:

"According to regional staff, this (secrecy) practice has hindered their ability to complete sound environmental analyses."

Those analyses are required under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Although the GAO report just came out, drafts had been available at the Interior Department, which oversees the offshore oil drilling, since sometime before March 1, records show.

The report says some scientists who were sick of being told to do a lousy job on environmental analyses just quit, further complicating the task for doing a first-rate job taking stock of the risks as required under NEPA. Remember, folks, we are talking here about the Obama admnistration, which, as we noted recently, seems reminiscent of the Bush administration on some enviro matters lately. This latest finding flies in the face of President Obama's chest-pounding about how his administration would end the era of arm-twisting government scientists.

Obama's decision about the waters north of Alaska in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas pleased neither enviros, who point out it could allow drilling within a few years, or the oil industry, which wanted to go full steam ahead right now. We note that Shell just got a permit allowing exploratory drilling this summer.

We learned of this GAO report from the folks at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, whose executive director, Jeff Ruch, had this comment in a PEER press release:

"If the same managers who manipulated and suppressed scientific evaluations are still in charge, why should the public expect candid assessments of environmental impacts to suddenly begin?

"It is unsettling that Interior Department officials sat on this scathing GAO report and did not mention any aspect of it when they blithely announced their ambitious offshore drilling agenda just days ago."

The Interior Department promised to do better in the future. We'll see...

-- Robert McClure