NEW ORLEANS (Legal Newsline) - The Sierra Club and the Gulf Restoration Network are accusing the Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service of contributing to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by waiving safety regulations for oil explorations.

The federal lawsuit, filed May 18 in New Orleans, argues that the Minerals Management Service issued Notice to Lessee 2008-G-4, which exempted offshore exploratory drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico below Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama from compliance with the Blowout Scenario Disclosure and portions of the Worst Case Oil Spill Response requirements found in the governing federal rules.

This waiver allowed BP to drill in 5,000 feet of water without first conducting blow-out and worst case oil spill response analysis, the Sierra Club and the Gulf Restoration Network argue.

Under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, the Minerals Management Service must approve all drilling activities on federal leases.

To approve the drilling, the Minerals Management Service must review the Lessees Exploration Plan to ensure that the proposed activities will not cause serious harm or damage to life, property or to the marine, coastal, or human environment.

Also to be considered are if the drilling activities will unreasonably interfere with other uses of the area, interfere with or endanger operations on other leases, result in pollution, create hazardous or unsafe conditions and that it will not disturb any site, structure or object of historical or archaeological significance.

The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act requires that every Exploration Plan must contain public disclosures of an uncontrolled blowout scenario and a description and analysis of the response to the "worst case" spill from an exploration well.

"Together, these requirements ensure that operators think about what can go wrong and how to prevent it, or mitigate the damage," the environmental groups state.

On April 1, 2008, the Regional Director of the Minerals Management Service, Gulf of Mexico, issued Notice to Lessee 2008 G-4, which exempted offshore exploratory drilling operations from compliance with the Blowout Scenario Disclosure and portions of the Worst Case Oil Spill Response requirements.

The Sierra Club states that this Notice to Lessee effectively repealed the requirements for the operations most at risk for uncontrolled blowouts - exploratory drilling operations.

The environmental groups are asking the federal judge to declare the exemptions as unlawful amendments under the Administrative Procedure Act and the National Environmental Policy Act and to prohibit the defendants from applying the exemption from the Blowout Scenario disclosure and the Worst Case Oil Spill response requirements set out in the Notice to Lessees.

The groups are also asking the Judge to order that the Minerals Management Service review all deepwater permits granted under the Notice to Lessee in order to reduce the risk of a disaster repeating itself.

The plaintiffs claim further incidents, such as the April 20th oil spill, are likely if the Minerals Management Service continues to give out unlawful waivers and exemptions.

The Sierra Club argues that "...effectively waiving the blowout scenario and worst case spill requirements is an action that may significantly affect the quality of the human environment, in that it could and in fact has led to offshore oil and gas drilling without adequate protections against or planning for an uncontrolled blowout."

The defendants named in the lawsuit include Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Department of Interior, Wilma Lewis, Assistant Secretary Land and Minerals Management, Department of the Interior, and S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, Director Minerals Management Service, Department of the Interior.

Attorneys Joel Waltzer of Harvey, Louisiana, Robert Wiygul of Ocean Springs, Miss., and David Guest and Monica K. Reimer of Earthjustice in Tallahassee, Fla., are representing the Sierra Club and the Gulf Restoration Network.

U.S. District Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt is assigned to the case.

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