Feds Can't Forum Shop on Fight Over Gas Lease Sale
(CN) - A challenge to the U.S. government's sale of an offshore oil and gas lease belongs in Washington, D.C., as the drilling will occur beyond any state's jurisdiction, a federal judge ruled.
Lease 216/222, the first sale of an offshore lease in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill, made oil and gas leasing available in nearly 38.6 million acres off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Environmentalists argued, however, that approval failed to consider the lessons of the BP oil spill, in violation the National Environmental Policy Act.
When BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and caught fire in April 2010, it spilled 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf, breaking the record for the largest oil spill in U.S. history set by the Exxon Valdez.
Environmentalists said the government's oil-spill response methods were not as effective as federal officials thought, and that they had skimmed, chemically dispersed or burned only 24 percent of the spilled oil.
Oceana and three other environmental groups had sued the Bureau of Ocean Management, the Department of Interior, and their top brass in June 2012.
"The response effort also resulted in unforeseen and harmful impacts to the Gulf," the complaint states. "Before the Deepwater Horizon spill, chemical dispersants had never been used in such quantities, nor in the manner in which they were employed in the Deepwater Horizon response."
Deepwater Horizon also resulted in the collection of more than 6,100 dead coastal and marine birds, 600 dead sea turtles and 500 dead marine mammals, the groups said.
The bureau allegedly prepared the environmental impact statement for Lease Sale 216/222 just a few months after the disaster. Instead of taking into consideration the effects of Deepwater Horizon, however, the bureau "concluded that '[n]o substantial new information, with the exception of archaeological resources, was found that would alter the impact conclusions' presented in the pre-spill analyses," the complaint states.
U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras refused on Friday to let the government transfer the case from Washington D.C. to Alabama.
"The court notes several facts that link this case to the District of Columbia," Contreras wrote. "Two of the four plaintiff organizations have their headquarters in the District, and the others have offices here. None have offices in Alabama. The records of decision for the challenged lease sales were both signed by a Department of Interior official in Washington, D.C. The government does not argue that any relevant decisions were made in Alabama."
Contreras also pointed out that the species, resources and cities affected by the lease sale are spread throughout the Gulf Coast.
"In this case, national groups located in Washington, D.C. have brought suit to challenge lease sales approved by a federal official here, which re-opened a 'vital national resource reserve held by the federal government for the public,' to oil and gas exploration after a nationally significant environmental disaster. That activity will take place on the outer continental shelf, beyond the bounds of any states."
The government also defended its motion to transfer by pointing to the Alabama court's familiarity with the applicable laws based on its recent hearing of a factually similar case, which it had decided in the government's favor.
Contreras shot that argument down.
"It is not the Southern District of Alabama as a whole that is familiar with the earlier matter, but rather one particular judge there," he wrote. "Transferring this case to another judge in that district would not seem to conserve any judicial resources at all. On the other hand, if a transfer would mean that the same judge who ruled in favor of the government in the earlier case would also hear this one, then concerns about forum shopping ... would present themselves."