CALIFORNIA (March 9, 2005) -- Ten conservation groups sued the Bush administration today over its recent decision that no significant environmental effects would result from extending 37 undeveloped oil and gas leases off the Central California coast. After an earlier lawsuit brought by the State of California and many of the same conservation groups, a federal appeals court in 2002 ordered the Minerals Management Service (MMS), a division of the Interior Department, to review the environmental impacts of extending the leases.

The groups that sued today are led by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and the Environmental Defense Center. The other groups are the League for Coastal Protection, The Otter Project, Sierra Club, Citizens Planning Association of Santa Barbara County, Defenders of Wildlife, Environment California, Get Oil Out!, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, and the Surfrider Foundation.

The Interior Department originally sold the leases between 1968 and 1984. Development of the leases, located off the coasts of Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, would double all historic oil production off the coast of California. Although impacts from development would last for decades, the fuel produced would provide less than two months' energy supply for the nation.

"Californians don't want new oil platforms built off their beautiful coast, and that's why the federal government is trying to sneak these leases under the radar," said NRDC attorney David Newman. "Clearly large scale oil and gas development will have massive impacts on marine mammals, fish, corrals, and the people who depend on healthy oceans, and yet the Bush administration is pretending there aren't any impacts."

"Once again the Bush Administration is violating important environmental protection laws," said Linda Krop, Chief Counsel of the Environmental Defense Center, the non-profit law firm that initially convinced the State of California to challenge these leases in 1999. "It is critical that the public and decision-makers have the benefit of a full analysis, including the risks of oil spills, increased air and water pollution, conflicts with commercial fishing, recreation and tourism, and potential harm to sea otters and other marine wildlife."

The lawsuit was filed March 9, 2005, in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. The named defendants are Gale Norton, Secretary of the Interior; the U.S. Department of the Interior; the MMS; and Peter Tweedt, Regional Manager of MMS for the Pacific Region. The lawsuit's primary claim is that the MMS failed to consider all the effects from extending the leases, including those caused by future exploration, drilling, and production. Instead, the MMS made a "Finding of No Significant Impact" based upon its narrow review of activities that will take place over the next 13--37 months. During that time period, the oil companies will update their plans for exploration, development and production.

"The law is clear that a public agency must address all of the reasonably foreseeable actions and impacts that may flow from a decision," pointed out Krop. "In this case, the sole purpose of the extensions is to allow the oil industry to commence drilling and production on the leases."

"The Federal government is flying blind by ignoring the impacts of oil and gas development on coastal and ocean ecosystems," added Melvin Nutter, chairperson of the League for Coastal Protection. "The law requires that the government take a hard look before they act and to tell the public of the environmental consequences."

The lawsuit also challenges the failure of MMS to consider alternatives to developing these leases, or to analyze cumulative impacts, including other oil and gas development projects and proposals to import liquefied natural gas (LNG).