Earthjustice is representing the Gulf Restoration Network and the Sierra Club in challenging the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) for its policy put forth in a notice to the oil companies drilling in the Gulf of Mexico; in its notice, MMS exempts those companies from being required to disclose in their exploratory plans a blow-out scenario, and a worst case scenario as required by law. The blow-out scenario and worst case scenario, if included, would disclose scenarios for a potential blow-out, including the maximum volume of oil that would be released, the maximum flow-rate of the oil, the maximum duration of the blow-out, and the estimated time it would take to contain such an oil spill.
In regards to BP's exploration plan for the Deepwater Horizon rig, MMS approved the exploratory plan without requiring these provisions, because of the policy put forth by MMS in its' Notice to Lessees in which it exempts oil companies from compliance. Additionally, MMS was required by law to produce an analysis of potential environmental impacts in the event of a blow-out, which it did not do. The legal challenge will ask the Court of Appeals to review this MMS policy of exempting oil companies from complying with the law, and will ask the court to review any recently approved oil exploration plans that fail to include the required scenarios.
"This case is about lax regulation by the Minerals Management Service," said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. "It is actually easier to get a permit for an offshore oil well than for a hot dog stand." "The full scope of the impact is still too early to determine," said Robert Wiygul, attorney. "But, this could damage fisheries forever and wipe out wetlands and beaches. We are challenging MMS to follow the law when it approves plans like these in the future."
As I write this, ships are being prepared to steam northward from several ports to begin poking holes in the floor of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in search of oil.
Thanks to legal action by Earthjustice over the last few years, and thanks also to a one-year time-out called in the wake of the catastrophic blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the drilling has been forestalled, but it could finally begin this July. Legal challenges are still pending, but the odds seem long against them.
That said, this is closer to the beginning of this struggle than to its end.
One year ago, the BP oil spill had just started turning the Gulf of Mexico's blue waters to the color of rust. Triggered on April 20, 2010 by a well-rig explosion that killed 11 people, the spill would gush more than 200 million gallons of crude oil—the largest oil spill in U.S. history.