The Gulf Restoration Network and Sierra Club filed a lawsuit today against the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) in an effort to force a review of the approval of five different deepwater Gulf of Mexico exploratory drilling plans. The plans, approved in the last two months, all lack key information including disclosures of blowout and worst case oil spill scenarios because MMS exempted applicants for exploratory drilling permits off of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama from including such provisions, in contradiction to laws found in the Code of Federal Regulations.
Federal rules state that applicants for a drilling permit must include in their exploration plan:
"[a] scenario for the potential blowout of the proposed well in your [exploration plan] that you expect will have the highest volume of liquid hydrocarbons, include the estimated flow rate, the total volume, and maximum duration of the potential blowout. Also, discuss the potential for the well to bridge over, the likelihood for surface intervention to stop the blowout, the availability of a rig to drill a relief well, and rig package constraints. Estimate the time it would take to drill a relief well."
In April 2008, MMS issued a waiver notice to drilling applicants effectively exempting them from meeting these requirements.
A similar lawsuit was filed last week by the same groups, which challenged the exemption itself. The aim of that suit is to stop the Minerals Management Service from continuing to exempt well drillers from meeting the statutory disclosure requirements as soon as possible. The groups are represented by Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, and the New Orleans law firm of Waltzer & Wiygul.
"We've got five faulty deepwater exploration drilling plans approved and ready to go that all pose significant threats to the Gulf," said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. "The age of skating around the law needs to come to an end."
"This blind approval of new drilling has got to stop. How much worse does the oil industry have to behave before they get sent to the corner for a timeout?" said Michael Brune, Executive Director of Sierra Club. "Despite the horror we've watched unfolding in the Gulf over the past month, the MMS is moving forward with new drilling plans that will result in more disasters. It's time for the federal government to stand up to the oil industry. We need assurance that this won't happen again."
Today's legal challenge was filed in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
The Minerals Management Service also violated the National Environment Policy Act by not preparing an environmental impact statement or assessment on either the April 2008 Notice to Lessees or the subsequently approved exploration plans.