Federal suit challenging Gulf drilling making its way through Mobile court


A federal lawsuit pending in Mobile could determine the fate of hundreds of leases that the government has granted to oil companies drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

An environmental group, Defenders of Wildlife, accuses the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management of violating federal law by accepting the hundreds of bids for new wells in the Gulf. Included are bids on tracts in the vicinity of the BP PLC well that ruptured in April following the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig, triggering the months-long spill disaster.

The government, Chevron Corp. and several oil and gas trade associations have asked Chief U.S. District Judge William Steele to dismiss the litigation.

Steele has given Defenders of Wildlife until Tuesday to respond to a motion filed by Chevron, which recently intervened in the case.

Defenders of Wildlife sued in May, when the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management was known as the Minerals Management Service. It filed an updated complaint in November.

The plaintiff contends that the federal agency has granted leases for 448 tracts in the Gulf — including 21 new leases for wells in water deeper than 500 feet — since the spill.

Sixteen of those leases went to BP, and most of those were in depths exceeding 1,300 feet, according to the suit.

The government accepted bids until March 16 and has been approving them incrementally, “with many of these approvals taking place since the Deepwater Horizon spill,” the complaint states.

In its filings, Chevron attacked the complaint on substantive and procedural grounds. It maintains that the federal court in Mobile does not have jurisdiction, for instance, because none of the agency’s actions occurred in Alabama.

Defenders of Wildlife “has filed the wrong claims, at the wrong time, in the wrong court,” Chevron lawyer Reginald Smith wrote.

Smith said he could not speak to the Press-Register without getting approval from the company.

The lawsuit alleges that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management predicted in an environmental impact statement that the total oil spilled in the area that includes the Deepwater Horizon site would not exceed 26,500 barrels in the 40-year life span of 11 proposed lease sales. It also predicted that the impact on marine life would be “sublethal” and “negligible.”

The suit says that the summer spill demonstrates that the conclusions in the statement are no longer are valid.

“BOEM’s acceptance of bids for new leases after the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout and spill in reliance on the invalid conclusions… without supplementation of the EIS based on significant new circumstances and information is arbitrary and capricious and not in accordance with law.”

Defenders of Wildlife wants the judge to:

  • Vacate all leases granted since April 20, the date of the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
  • Order the government to comply with federal laws in any further exploratory drilling and future lease sales.
  • Order the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to account for new information that has come to light as a result of the oil spill.

Chevron insists that the lawsuit’s claims are either moot or premature. The government has filed its own motion to dismiss the lawsuit, making similar arguments.

Government lawyers contend that part of the claim is moot because the agency has initiated a supplemental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.

To the extent that the lawsuit challenges future lease sales, the government argues, it is premature to seek a court order.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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