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Gulf Deep Water Oil Drilling Challenged

Conservation groups: Address lessons of last Gulf oil spill before allowing new deep water drilling
June 9, 2011
New Orleans, LA — 

Earthjustice filed a legal challenge today against the federal government for conducting a flawed environmental risk assessment of Shell Oil Company’s plan to drill for oil in deep Gulf of Mexico water near the site of BP’s catastrophic 2010 well blowout.

Earthjustice filed suit in the Eleventh Circuit because the government’s risk calculations are flawed and Shell’s drilling plan is not sufficient to protect communities from another major oil spill along the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coasts. Earthjustice filed suit on behalf of the Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Network, and the Florida Wildlife Federation.

The federal agency has based its analysis on a 1-in-4000 chance oil spill risk scenario even though industry documents show the chance of a major spill at 1-in-43, or 2.3 percent.

“No reasonable person would take a 1-in-43 chance of their house burning down, so why in heaven’s name would the federal government take a 1-in-43 chance of having another massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) approved Shell’s plan after concluding that “an accidental spill event is not very likely to occur.”

BOEMRE’s oil spill risk calculations are fundamentally flawed and ignore relevant risk factors well known in the industry, especially when drilling 1.5 miles below the ocean’s surface. Among other things, BOEMRE bases its total risk calculations on the experience of drilling in shallow waters—not the deep waters where the BP spill occurred and Shell now plans to drill.

A review of Shell’s plan shows that a spill at the company’s proposed drilling site, 72 miles off the Louisiana coast, could produce 400,000 barrels of oil a day. That is more than six times the amount spilled in the BP disaster, and it would impact communities from western Louisiana to Panama City, Florida. The most severely impacted area in Shell’s “worst case scenario” plan would be Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana, which continues to be devastated by the impacts of the BP spill.

“It is as if the government regulators have learned nothing from the BP disaster,” said Guest of Earthjustice. “Before new deep water Gulf drilling occurs,“ Guest added, “the government must make a realistic assessment of the risk to the Gulf’s ecosystem, its communities, and the many jobs that depend on tourism, fishing, and recreation. It has utterly failed to do so here.”

Shell’s exploration plan anticipates the company using the same type of “blowout preventer” that failed at BP’s Deepwater Horizon well last summer. Federal regulators approved Shell’s exploration plan, even though the plan clearly does not take into account the weaknesses of blowout preventer technology in the deep sea environment.

During The National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, numerous experts admitted that the technology has not been adequately tested for harsh deepwater conditions—precisely where Shell intends to drill.

Shell’s plan says the company is prepared to deal with an uncontrolled blowout because it is a founding member of the Marine Well Containment Company (“MWCC”) and will have access to an integrated subsea well control and containment system that can be rapidly deployed. But Shell’s reliance on the MWCC is arbitrary and capricious, because MWCC does not expect to have its system in place and ready to be deployed until 2012, long after Shell expects to begin drilling.

“Approval of Shell's Exploration Plan is especially troubling in light of the conclusions reached in the House Oversight Government and Reform Committee’s recent report examining the adequacy of the Obama Administration's decisions in the wake of the BP oil spill disaster,” said Sierra Club attorney Devorah Ancel. “The report concludes that the Administration ignored critical input when it reorganized BOEMRE to address the systematic problems in regulating drilling. This latest approval demonstrates just that, as it continues to prioritize the interests of big oil at the expense of our natural resources, economy, and the livelihoods of communities across the Gulf.”

“The Shell Plan should be withdrawn until the system it is relying upon is completed, deployable, and has been tested to the satisfaction of independent experts,” Guest said.

“We are concerned about continuing business as usual in light of what occurred at BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster last year,” said Cynthia Sartou, Executive Director of the Gulf Restoration Network. “We feel the federal government needs to take a second look.”

“We’ve got to have proper oversight,” said Florida Wildlife Federation Executive Director Manley Fuller, “and this isn’t it.”


Contact:
David Guest, Earthjustice, (850) 681-0031
Cynthia Sartou, Gulf Restoration Network (504) 723-3547, ext. 202
Manley Fuller, Florida Wildlife Federation (850) 567-7129
Devorah Ancel, Sierra Club, (415) 977-5721