The Gulf Restoration Network and the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) for exempting oil companies drilling in the Gulf of Mexico from disclosing blowout and worst case oil spill scenarios, as well as formulating detailed plans for such. The groups are represented by Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, and the New Orleans law firm of Waltzer & Wiygul.
"I've worked for 15 years to protect and restore the beaches, wetlands and wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico," said Cynthia Sarthou of the Gulf Restoration Network. "We are bracing ourselves against the environmental catastrophe this will bring. BP's drilling disaster will likely destroy countless victories we've won for a healthy Gulf."
By law, MMS is required to include blowout and worst case oil spill scenarios before approving exploratory offshore drilling plans. These blowout and worst case scenario disclosures 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.
For the BP Deepwater Horizon rig exploration plan, MMS approved the 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. Additionally, MMS 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.
"The basic problem here is that the Minerals Management Service tried to change the law without telling anybody," said Robert Wiygul, an environmental lawyer involved in the lawsuit. "That's bad policy, and the BP mess proves it's a disaster for the environment."
This legal challenge asks the court to invalidate the MMS practice of sending notices to oil companies informing them that they don't have to comply with the rules and to order review of existing offshore drilling plans that do not comply with existing rules.
"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 MMS failed to protect us from the worst-case scenario of offshore drilling and now we are watching this scenario play out before our eyes," said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune. "Response to the blowout has included desperate measures like lighting the sea on fire, pouring potent chemicals into the water, using trash and human hair to prevent the flow of oil, and proposals to dredge the sea and create new barrier islands. If oil companies aren't capable of responding to a blowout, they shouldn't be permitted to drill."
"Our government clearly missed the painful engineering lessons taught by the design failures that caused our levees to collapse in Hurricane Katrina. When analysis of real data is abandoned in favor of assumption, disaster is sure to follow," said Joel Waltzer, a New Orleans lawyer who lost his home to failed floodwalls in Katrina. "Is the bottom of the ocean that different south of Louisiana and Mississippi?"