Environmentalists Sue to Block Sale of Gulf Oil Leases

WASHINGTON (CN) – Three environmental groups sued the Trump administration on Wednesday over its decision to sell leases of millions of acres of land along the Gulf of Mexico for offshore drilling.

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

By 2022, the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management plans to sell off more than 78 million acres around the gulf coast.

Healthy Gulf, the Sierra Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity claim in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Washington, D.C., federal court that the government has not fully analyzed the risks oil operations pose to people, wildlife and the environment.

“In 2017, Interior began to offer for sale essentially all unleased acres in the Western and Central Gulf of Mexico in each of ten lease sales,” the complaint states. “Around the same time, Interior also began engaging in a series of efforts to unravel critical drilling safety protections and to boost oil and gas development in shallow waters in the Gulf.”

According to the environmental groups, the Interior Department “turned a blind eye to the policies it had adopted” and began repealing significant drilling safety regulations and reducing royalty rates to spur development of marginal, shallow-water oil fields – actions they claim will increase the risks of oil and gas production.  

“The Trump administration is barreling ahead with expanded oil and gas drilling in our oceans while simultaneously erasing critical protections that protect Gulf coasts and giving oil and gas companies a pass from complying with existing safety requirements,” Brettny Hardy of Earthjustice, an Earthjustice attorney representing the groups, said in a statement Wednesday.

In January, the Interior Department announced that it would be holding a sale for an offshore oil and gas lease on March 20.

Last month, department officials said the sales are in support of President Donald Trump’s “America-First offshore energy strategy.” One sale includes land within the current boundaries of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.

“The development of our abundant offshore resources is a major pillar of this administration’s energy strategy,” Assistant Secretary of Land and Minerals Management Joe Balash said in a statement at the time. “America benefits from domestic energy production, which provides money for our Treasury, thousands of well-paying jobs, affordable and reliable energy to heat our homes, fuel our cars, and power our economy.”

“Developing our nation’s offshore energy resources is vital to our economy and energy security,” acting Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Walter Cruickshank said. “Our staff is committed to ensuring offshore development is done in an environmentally responsible manner.”

The environmental groups say that the lease sales violate the National Environmental Policy Act, a basic national charter for protection of the environment that requires agencies to examine the environmental consequences of their actions.

They also claim the Interior Department’s analyses of the sales’ environmental effects rely on flawed assumptions about the safety regulations and royalty rates that would apply to the leases. 

The groups are also in the midst of challenging two other lease sales held last year that relied on the same reasoning.

Chief among their arguments is the role the Gulf of Mexico plays to the millions of people who live in states along it and the marine species that call it home.

The Gulf is home to thousands of species of fish, sea turtles, whales, dolphins, and sea birds, many of which are already threatened or endangered with extinction,” the lawsuit states. “Millions of people who live in the states along the Gulf Coast depend on this productive marine environment to support coastal fisheries, tourism, and recreation, the backbones of the Gulf States’ economies.”

The environmentalists claim Interior Department records show more than four losses of well control per year on average from 2011 through 2016 in the gulf and that offshore fires have been occurring about every three days.

They also say more than 2,100 oil and chemical spills occur each year in the area, some of which are catastrophic, like the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, and that vessel strikes, noise pollution, bottom habitat destruction and water pollution already wreak havoc on the environment. 

“Trump needs to stop treating the Gulf of Mexico like a sacrifice zone for oil industry pollution,” Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement Wednesday. “Expanding offshore drilling while glossing over its environmental harms is reckless and illegal. A proper study would reveal that marine life, our climate and coastal communities are being harmed by oil spills and other pollution from offshore drilling. We need to transition away from this dirty, dangerous practice for good.”

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