* Group says US improperly approved offshore operations
* It says Interior Department ignored environmental laws
* Oil exploration harms marine mammals, group says
By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
WASHINGTON, May 14 (Reuters) - U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar improperly approved offshore oil operations in the Gulf of Mexico without regard to possible harm to marine mammals, an environmental group said on Friday in a legal notice.
The Center for Biological Diversity said it plans to sue Salazar and the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) for failing to get environmental permits required by two environmental laws -- the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
The group said the Interior Department has approved three lease sales, more than 100 seismic surveys and more than 300 drilling operations since Salazar took office in 2009 without the required environmental permits meant to protect endangered whales and other marine mammals.
“The Department of the Interior and the Minerals Management Service are creating a lawless zone in the Gulf of Mexico when it comes to these environmental laws,” Miyoko Sakashita, the center’s oceans director, said by telephone. “The oil companies really get to call the shots.”
The group filed a notice of intent to sue Salazar and MMS, giving them 60 days to respond, as required by the Endangered Species Act. The Interior Department had no immediate comment.
The environmental group’s action came as President Barack Obama on Friday announced that he has directed Salazar to carry out a “top-to-bottom reform” of the MMS, the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling.
“For too long, for a decade or more, there’s been a cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill,” Obama said.
“That cannot and will not happen anymore,” Obama added.
Obama also expressed “anger and frustration” over the April 20 BP (BP.L) offshore oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers and triggered what may be the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
In response to the BP spill, Salazar on Tuesday announced a plan to divide MMS to separate the collection of oil royalties from safety inspection duties.
In a joint statement with the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Interior Department said on Friday it will review environmental procedures at MMS regarding the impact of offshore oil and gas development.
Whales and other marine mammals in the Gulf can suffer hearing loss from the loud noise generated by seismic exploration surveys used to search for oil, the center said in its document. These surveys can also disturb feeding and breeding behavior and mask communication between individual whales and dolphins, according to the center.
Noise from drilling operations can displace whales from feeding areas and offshore oil activities -- such as pollution, marine debris, oil spills and vessels striking mammals -- can also harm marine mammals, the center said.
Editing by Will Dunham