ATLANTA (June 9, 2011) -- The federal government illegally authorized new deepwater drilling by claiming that risky operations will cause no significant harm to the environment despite last year’s BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, said four environmental groups in a court filing today.
The coalition challenged government approval of Shell’s plan to conduct new deepwater exploratory drilling off Alabama’s coast in waters 2000 feet deeper than the BP Deepwater Horizon even though regulators acknowledge that the operations may result in an oil spill ten times bigger than last year’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Southern Environmental Law Center filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta.
“We now know that numerous human errors occurred to cause the largest oil disaster in our country’s history,” said David Pettit, senior attorney with NRDC. “But we also know there were a number of premeditated actions industry and government regulators should have taken to protect against a disaster of this magnitude. Those steps still are not fully realized and 40-year-old containment methods cannot save us from another spill were one to happen tomorrow.”
After a cursory 30-day review, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement determined that there would be no significant impact from new exploratory deepwater drilling by Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc. in about 7,200 feet of water. The worst case scenario oil spill detailed in the plan is as much as 405,000 barrels (17 million gallons) of oil a day for up to 128 days, which could result in a spill of 45 million barrels (1.89 billion gallons) of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. BOEMRE’s decision comes about a year after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, which spilled more than 4.9 million barrels (200 million gallons) of oil.
According to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, special risks emerge when drilling ultra-deepwater wells at depths greater than 5,000 feet including the risk of an uncontrolled blow-out as was the case with Deepwater Horizon. The approved Shell plan calls for drilling wells significantly deeper than the BP well.
“Finding that drilling in waters far deeper than the Deepwater Horizon site has no significant impact when we know how damaging last year’s spill was defies common sense and echoes the irresponsible attitudes that preceded the disaster,” said Catherine Wannamaker, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who represents the environmental groups in court. “The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that is still impacting the Gulf and many lives along the coast cannot and should not be swept under the rug for oil company convenience and profit.”
The government’s review and its conclusion of no significant impact relied on the same faulty Gulf-wide environmental impact statement under which it previously permitted the BP Deepwater Horizon. Since then, the presidential commission found systemic problems within the oil industry, a recent report documented the failure of the blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon, and two Inspector General reports documented a broken regulatory system.
“BOEMRE has admitted the old environmental analyses were rendered obsolete by the Deepwater Horizon disaster,” said Mike Senatore, vice president of Conservation Law at Defenders of Wildlife. “But even after acknowledging that they need to take a new look at the risks of deepwater drilling, the agency is moving forward with blinders on.”
“The approval of Shell’s drilling is a test case for how the government will oversee risky drilling in the Gulf. As this lawsuit shows, so far we’re unimpressed. The government says it’s doing a thorough review, but we simply don’t see how you can conclude that a potential spill of a billion gallons of oil is ‘insignificant,’” said Deirdre McDonnell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
More than a year after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, effects are still clearly present: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed fishermen reports of Gulf finfish like red snapper with open and unhealed sores, University of Georgia scientists documented a seafloor still covered in oil and dead creatures, and University of Central Florida research recently linked the oil spill to more than 150 dead dolphins that washed up on Gulf coasts since January 2011, including 65 newborn, infants, stillborn or those born prematurely. Scientists are still examining the full impact of the spill, including impacts that may show up over time in the Gulf food chain and in future generations of aquatic life. Many communities and residents whose livelihoods and culture are tied to the Gulf through fisheries, seafood, and tourism are still recovering from the impact of the months-long BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.