Suit Filed To End Reckless Approach to Offshore Oil Drilling

As Gulf spill proves, drilling permits are too easily granted by MMS

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Permits to sell hot dogs are harder to get than permits to drill offshore in deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, an Earthjustice attorney said this morning as he filed a lawsuit challenging the federal Minerals Management Service for letting companies like British Petroleum drill without adequate safety measures.

BP, which has struggled for a month to stop a catastrophic oil spill after its Gulf deepwater drill rig exploded, was given a wave-of-the-hand waiver of legal requirements by the MMS—and then started drilling. Only after the well blew out, and BP was confronted with a worst-case scenario that it hadn’t been forced to plan for, did MMS’s regulatory failure become obvious.

For attorney David Guest, what’s frightening—and is at the heart of the Earthjustice suit—is that there are at least 60 other permits for deepwater drilling in the Gulf that received the same lenient waiver of requirements from MMS. That’s five dozen time bombs that shouldn’t be allowed to tick, he said.

The suit, on behalf of fisherman hurt by the spill and conservation groups, asks the court to invalidate the MMS practice of telling oil companies they don’t have to comply with the rules, and to order review of offshore drilling plans that don’t comply with existing rules

Guest is in some pretty high-octane company as he takes on MMS. At least eight congressional hearings are looking into the MMS for what President Obama described as its too—cozy relationship with the oil industry. The president himself has launched a presidential commission to investigate the spill, MMS and everything having to do with the spill.

By law, MMS is required to include blowout and worst-case oil spill scenarios before approving exploratory offshore drilling plans. These scenarios must include the maximum volume of oil, the maximum flow rate, the maximum duration of the blowout, and an estimate of the time it would take to contain the resulting oil spill.

MMS approved BP’s plan without this required step because MMS had issued a notice to oil companies telling them that they didn’t have to comply with those blowout and worst case oil spill rules. The agency also was required by law to produce an analysis of potential environmental impacts in the event of a blow-out; but failed to take that necessary step as well. Today, Sec. Salazar admitted before a Senate hearing that his department’s failures may be partially to blame for the BP spill.>

Represented by Earthjustice in the suit are the Gulf Restoration Network and Sierra Club.


From 2006–2014, Terry was managing editor for Earthjustice's blog, online monthly newsletter and print Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.