Feds should pull Gulf permits until environmental impact clear, activists say

By Laurel Brubaker Calkins and Allen Johnson Jr.
Bloomberg News

Environmentalists urged a New Orleans appellate court today to require U.S. offshore drilling regulators to enforce safeguards for wildlife and water quality that they claim were routinely ignored before last year’s BP Plc oil spill.

Lawyers representing the Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Network, the Center for Biological Diversity and other activist groups asked the court to force the Interior Department to rescind several deep-water drilling permits regulators approved last April, just before and after the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

The activists complain that the relationship between the oil industry and its regulators has been too cozy, resulting in lax oversight and environmental damage. They claim that five specific drilling permits were awarded last April without completion of the full environmental-impact assessments required by law.

“What the agency did was rubber stamp the plans,” Monica Reimer, an attorney for Earthjustice, said during today’s hearing at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. “We believe they need to be reopened, and that those plans must come before the court after the agency has done a complete environmental assessment.”

Seeking Change

The activist groups sued Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar and his agency seeking multiple changes to U.S. drilling regulations following the Deepwater Horizon disaster last April. The rig exploded while drilling a BP well off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 workers. The subsea gusher spewed more than 4.1 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.

Much of the Gulf’s fisheries were closed, wildlife was injured or killed, and hundreds of miles of shoreline was fouled by the drifting oil.

A three-judge appellate panel consolidated the environmental policy challenges into two groups and heard arguments on them in back-to-back sessions today.

The lead cases are Gulf Restoration Network v. Salazar, 10- 60411, and Center for Biological Diversity v. Salazar, 10-60417, both in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (New Orleans).