Sierra Club claims federal agency waived safety regulations in oil exploration

By Michelle Massey | May 24, 2010


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

The suit filed May 18 in federal court in New Orleans, claims the MMS issued a notice which exempted offshore exploratory drilling operations, in the Gulf of Mexico, below Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, from compliance with federal "Blowout Scenario Disclosure and portions of the "Worst Case Oil Spill Response" requirements.

The waiver allegedly allowed BP to drill in 5,000 feet of water without first conducting blow-out and worst case oil spill response analysis, the suit claims.

Under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, the MMS must approve all drilling activities on federal leases. To approve the drilling, the MMS 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.

The Act requires that every exploration plan must contain public disclosures of an uncontrolled blowout scenario and analysis 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.

The suit asks that a judge declare the exemptions as unlawful. The groups are also asking the court orders the MMS to review all deepwater permits granted under its Notice to Lessee 2008-G-4 in order to reduce the risk of a disaster repeating itself.

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

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, Mississippi, 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.

Case No. 2:10cv01497

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