Group Sues Interior Over 'Fast Track' Deep-Sea Well Permits

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — An environmental group sued the Interior Department on Wednesday for what it called the "fast track" permitting of potentially dangerous oil and natural gas wells in offshore waters. The action came on the sixth anniversary of the nation's largest offshore oil spill.

         The federal lawsuit, filed by the California-based Center for Biological Diversity in Washington, D.C., seeks to force regulators to conduct more in-depth environmental reviews of drilling plans before handing out permits.

         BP's catastrophic oil spill started with a blowout of a deep-water well on April 20, 2010. Eleven workers were killed aboard the drilling rig, the Deepwater Horizon, and millions of gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico.

         Kristen Monsell, a lawyer with the center, said the disaster should be "a deafening wake-up call" about the dangers of offshore drilling.

         "Here we are on the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon and nothing has really changed," she said.

         The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the agency of the Interior that oversees drilling, is reviewing the suit, said spokesman Gregory Julian.

         The suit takes aim at the use of "categorical exclusions" that allow regulators to issue permits without in-depth environmental reviews, which was the case with the BP well that blew out six years ago. Following the spill, regulators stopped issuing categorical exclusions for complex deep-sea wells such as BP's.

         But the suit contends that they are still granted for many potentially dangerous drilling activities, allowing officials to "rubber stamp drilling permits with no meaningful environmental review."

         The suit also warns that hydraulic fracturing is being allowed in the Gulf of Mexico without proper environmental review.

         "These practices increase the risk of oil spills and earthquakes and cause toxic water and air pollution beyond that of conventional offshore oil and gas drilling," contends the suit, which asks a federal judge to force the Interior Department to overhaul and strengthen its environmental review procedures.

         David Uhlmann, an environmental law professor at the University of Michigan, said the suit raises "legitimate concerns about the adequacy of the environmental reviews," especially because it comes six years after the Center for Biological Diversity asked the Interior Department to re-evaluate its rules for environmental review. According to the lawsuit, the department never responded to that petition.

         Uhlmann said the Interior Department "appears to be dragging its feet" on this "rule-making request."

         Still, he said challenges to agency procedures "always are uphill battles for environmental groups."

         – by AP Reporter Cain Burdeau



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