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Feds knew of Gulf spill risks in 2000, document shows

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An oiled white ibis off the Louisiana coastA decade ago, U.S. government regulators warned that a major deepwater oil spill could start with a fire on a drilling rig, prove hard to stop and cause extensive damage to fish eggs and wetlands because there were few good ways to capture oil underwater.

The disaster scenario — contained in a May 2000 offshore drilling plan for the Shell oil company that McClatchy has obtained — is now a grim reality in the Gulf of Mexico. Less predictably, perhaps, the author of the document was the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, the regulatory agency that's come under withering criticism in the wake of the BP spill for being too cozy with industries it was supposed to be regulating.

The 2000 warning, however, indicates that some federal regulators were well aware of the potential hazards of deepwater oil production in its early years, experts and former MMS officials told McClatchy.

Yet over the past decade, the risks faded into the background as America thirsted for new oil sources, the energy industry mastered new drilling technologies and the number of deepwater wells in the Gulf swelled into the thousands. Then-President George W. Bush ushered in the new era with an executive order on May 18, 2001, that pushed his new administration to speed up the search for oil.

"I think it was certainly overwhelmed by the excitement of all the oil and gas that was starting to show up in the seismic studies and the technical excitement of how to drill these reservoirs," said Rick Steiner, a veteran environmental scientist who reviewed the document for McClatchy. "I think that had a way of subduing the real concern about the risk of these things."


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