* Project won categorical exclusion from full review
* Exploration commonly exempted
(Repeats to add Washington dateline)
By Jeffrey Jones and Jeff Mason
HOUSTON/WASHINGTON, May 6 U.S. regulators
exempted BP Plc (BP.L) from a detailed environmental review of
the exploration project that ultimately resulted in the deadly
Gulf of Mexico explosion and subsequent oil spill, documents
The Minerals Management Service granted BP's project a
"categorical exclusion" from full environmental analysis
normally required under the National Environmental Policy Act,
according to documents made available by the Center for
Biological Diversity, an environmental group.
BP had argued in a letter to the Council on Environmental
Quality (CEQ), a White House agency, last month that the use of
the exclusion for projects did not mean environmental impacts
were being ignored, only that an agency agrees they are deemed
to be minimal or nonexistent.
The MMS, the branch of the U.S. Interior Department that is
responsible for managing oil, gas and other resources on the
outer continental shelf, approved the exploration project on
April 6, 2009.
The exclusion puts pressure on President Barack Obama's
administration to show it could not have done more to prevent
what may become the most damaging oil spill in U.S. history.
The Transocean Ltd (RIG.N) Deepwater Horizon drilling rig
contracted by BP exploded two weeks ago, killing 11 workers and
triggering the U.S. Gulf oil spill.
Kieran Suckling, the environmental group's executive
director, said the incident showed the Obama administration's
support for increased offshore drilling had obscured Interior
Secretary Ken Salazar's pledge to reform the MMS.
"Instead of protecting the public interest by conducting
environmental reviews, his agency rubber-stamped BP's drilling
plan, just as it does hundreds of others every year in the Gulf
of Mexico," Suckling said in a statement.
Administration officials said the practice of issuing such
exclusions was under review.
"The Obama administration has recognized that there should
be more oversight of how agencies use categorical exclusions,"
a CEQ official said.
"That is why CEQ issued draft guidance in February 2010,
that addresses the need for monitoring the use of categorical
exclusions to ensure that they are being applied in a way that
meets their intent."
U.S. government agencies grant exclusions for categories of
projects that have been found typically not to have substantial
environmental impacts, or in cases where the agency has past
experience with a similar project.
An Interior Department official said the granting of the
categorical exclusion for the BP project did not mean that no
environmental impact study had been done.
The MMS conducts a detailed study when it is developing a
five-year program covering the entire region. The agency then
does separate analyses for all of the Central and Western Gulf
states included in the development program, the official said.
Between 250 and 400 exploration programs in the Gulf are
granted categorical exclusions, according to the MMS.
However, the process will be looked at as the department
conducts a review of all its processes in the aftermath of the
spill, the official said.