Interior Department Slow To Supply Safety Test Data in Shell Arctic Drilling Case

September 5, 2012

The Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) dragged its heels in supplying information about testing of safety equipment on the Shell Arctic drilling project, prompting a lawsuit by an environmental watchdog group.

Under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), agencies have 20 working days to respond to information requests. BSEE announced June 27, 2012, that it had tested and approved Shell's capping stack for a planned well in the Chukchi Sea. Richard Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor, filed a FOIA request July 16, 2012, for the testing data on which BSEE's approval was based. BSEE had subsequently corresponded with Steiner about his eligibility for a fee waiver, but as of August 29 had not said whether it would grant any part of Steiner's FOIA request.

On August 30, Steiner went to court arguing that BSEE had "constructively denied" his request and violated the FOIA by not responding within the 20-day period, and asking the court to order release of the information. Steiner is represented by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

BSEE responded on August 30, supplying a single document — a one-page set of informal notes describing the tests. It was not clear whether this was the only documentation. PEER called the testing "scant" in a September 5 release, and said the results "should not give the American public much comfort." PEER has not decided on its next step in the suit.