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Gulf disaster
Bloomberg, April 26, 2011

U.S. Must Protect Offshore Drilling Environment, Groups Say
By Laurel Brubaker Calkins and Allen Johnson Jr.

Environmentalists urged a New Orleans appellate court today to require U.S. offshore-drilling regulators to enforce safeguards for wildlife and water quality that they claim were routinely ignored before last year’s BP Plc (BP/) oil spill.

Lawyers representing the Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Network, the Center for Biological Diversity and other activist groups asked the court to force the Interior Department to rescind several deep-water drilling permits regulators approved last April, just before and after the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

The activists complain that the relationship between the oil industry and its regulators has been too cozy, resulting in lax oversight and environmental damage. They claim that five drilling permits were awarded last April without completion of the full environmental-impact assessments required by law.

“What the agency did was rubber-stamp the plans,” Monica Reimer, an attorney for Earthjustice, said during today’s hearing at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. “We believe they need to be reopened, and that those plans must come before the court after the agency has done a complete environmental assessment.”

Seeking Change

The activist groups sued Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar and his agency seeking multiple changes to U.S. drilling regulations following the Deepwater Horizon disaster last April. The rig exploded while drilling a BP well off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 workers. The subsea gusher spewed more than 4.1 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.

Much of the Gulf’s fisheries were closed, wildlife was injured or killed, and hundreds of miles of shoreline was fouled by the drifting oil.

The environmental groups challenged the agency’s actions directly at the appeals court, which is permitted under U.S. law. Related offshore-drilling policy lawsuits filed by some of the activist groups in lower federal courts were subsequently consolidated into the appellate actions. A three-judge appellate panel heard arguments on the challenges in back-to-back sessions today.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which regulates offshore drilling, awarded one of the five permits the activists have complained about six days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded. The groups say that permit was based on an exploration plan that didn’t take into consideration the possibility of a deep-water spill like the one then spreading across the Gulf.

Agency Decisions

Government lawyers today urged the appeals court not to interfere with agency decisions that regulators made according to rules that were in place at the time the permits were granted. Regulators notified oil companies in November 2010 that the agency would beef up existing environmental-impact assessment requirements “to consider the implications of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” government lawyer Ignacia Moreno said in a court filing.

“The petitioners’ attempt to have this court rule that the agency should have started that process within days of the Deepwater Horizon initial explosion should be rejected,” Moreno said in the filing.

Environmentalists told the judges the agency’s practice of using of so-called categorical exclusions, which let regulators arbitrarily exempt companies from fulfilling certain permit requirements, violated the law.

Risky Process

“There were all kinds of risks that were not being disclosed to the Department of Interior or by the industry,’’ Reimer said of the five permits the bureau approved in April 2010, during an interview after the hearing.

“Deep-water drilling is an inherently risky process, and the industry knows it,’’ she said. “There is major potential for significant environmental impact,’’ and regulators should be forced to factor that into their permit approval decisions, she said.

The lead cases are Gulf Restoration Network v. Salazar, 10- 60411, and Center for Biological Diversity v. Salazar, 10-60417, both in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (New Orleans).

To contact the reporters on this story: Laurel Brubaker Calkins in Houston at laurel@calkins.us.com; Allen Johnson Jr. in New Orleanst .


Photo © Paul S. Hamilton