Enviro Agency Dramatically Underestimated Oil Spill Effects When Signing Off On BP Lease, Docs Show

A federal agency charged with protecting endangered species signed off in 2007 on a new round of oil drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico, saying that even if the new drilling led to a major oil spill, only some 60 endangered turtles would be killed, according to the official agency opinion reviewed by TPMmuckraker. But in the two months since the Deepwater Horizon blew, government scientists say more than 400 sea turtles have been found dead so far.

In 2007, the National Marine Fisheries Service, which enforces the Endangered Species Act, was asked to give its “biological opinion” on the impact of new oil drilling leases — including the lease of the now-leaking Macondo prospect — on endangered species, including turtles, sperm whales and sturgeon. Under the law, the Minerals Management Service, which leases the underwater wells, had to get NMFS’s sign-off that the drilling wouldn’t jeopardize the populations of endangered species.In the report (PDF), NMFS estimated the impact of a major spill on endangered species and concluded that the new drilling “is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of these species.” But the NMFS estimates were based on assurances from the MMS that a major spill would be significantly smaller than the current ongoing BP spill.

Neither the NMFS nor the MMS immediately returned requests for comment.

The agency based its description of a “major” spill on assurances from the MMS that technical advances made a really bad spill — such as, notably, the Ixtoc I disaster in 1979 — all but impossible.

“With new technologically advances [sic] and oil spill prevention and response plans, a major oil spill in the GOM [Gulf of Mexico] would not likely be as large as Ixtoc I (Minerals Management Service 2006),” the report reads.

So sure was the NMFS of the MMS’s expertise that it estimated a major spill as one half the size of the Ixtoc leak.

The Ixtoc was estimated to have leaked some 3.5 million barrels of oil after spewing into the Gulf for 10 months. Half of that, of course, is 1.75 million barrels.

BP’s leaking well is currently spewing 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day, according to the most recent estimates, and has been for some 77 days. That means, conservatively, the current leak has already put 2.7 million barrels into the Gulf. And it may have already leaked 4.6 million barrels.

In fact, the AP, based on its own estimates, declared last week that the BP leak had already surpassed the Ixtoc leak in gallons spilled.

“It’ll be well beyond Ixtoc by the time it’s finished,” one expert told the AP.

In its 2007 report, NMFS defined its “major spill” as having a sheen of 1,200 square miles, and tarballs would appear on a nine mile long stretch of coastal habitat. That’s the size of the spill that could kill of one tenth of the adult turtle population.

The sheen created by the current spill is much bigger, according to government maps, although difficult to measure. And as of yesterday, 484 miles of Gulf coastline was oiled.

The report estimated that, over the life of the 40 year leases, a total of 60 sea turtles — of the endangered or threatened species Kemp’s ridley, leatherback, hawksbill, loggerhead and green — would be killed by oil spills.

But the number of dead turtles found on the Gulf coast has already surpassed that number seven times over. Since April 30, according to NOAA, 438 stranded turtles have been found dead, and 115 have been found with visible evidence of oil. Almost 150 are in rehabilitation centers.

We should note that some of the turtles may have met their death in other ways. There are also untold numbers of dead turtles that never wash ashore.

Despite the low estimate of 60 fatalities, the 2007 report did note that there was a small chance of a “major” spill that could decimate the adult turtle population, and halve the juvenile population.

“We estimate that approximately 1 in 10 adult [turtles] will suffer chronic affects resulting in death from a major oil spill,” the report reads. It’s unclear whether the report refers to a tenth of the the entire Gulf turtle population, or a tenth of those who come in contact with the spill.

The opinion was written in June 2007. MMS sold the lease to the Macondo prospect to BP in March 2008.

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