WASHINGTON (CN) – Environmental groups sued the Trump administration late Monday for drastically expanding offshore oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico without giving full consideration to the environmental risks.
Brought by the Gulf Restoration Network, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, the federal complaint challenges an August 15 lease sale by the Interior Department.
The lease will open up a record 78 million acres — everything but the Continental shelf off the coast of Florida — to offshore exploration in federal waters off the coasts of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
The lawsuit also challenges a lease sale completed in March, which the July 16 complaint says “drew tepid interest,” but nonetheless managed to sell 50 percent more acres at a significantly lower cost than the prior sale.
The sales are part of a larger effort undertaken by interior secretary Ryan Zinke in 2017 to sell virtually all unleased federal waters in the Western and Central Gulf by March 2022. The August 15 sale is the third of 10 planned sales.
The Department of the Interior billed the August sale as part of President Donald Trump’s America-First Offshore Energy Strategy in a July 12 press release.
The Department of the Interior claimed to have analyzed the environmental impacts of the lease sales, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, prior to approving them.
But the environmental groups say the environmental impact statements produced were flawed, noting that the leasing effort coincided with a loosening of Obama-era drilling safety protections relied on to approve the sales.
Chris Eaton, one of three attorneys with Earthjustice to file the complaint, said in a statement that the administration “can’t have it both ways.”
“With these massive lease sales in the Gulf, the Trump administration is holding up President Obama’s policies with one hand to claim the environment and worker safety won’t be compromised, while slashing those same policies with the other hand and aggressively attempting to expand drilling,” Eaton said.
Repealing those policies, while lowering royalty rates to encourage development in shallow-water oil fields, will increase the environmental and human health risks from the offshore activities the leases will spur, the complaint says.
“Interior’s irrational reliance on the false assumptions that preexisting, safer policies would remain in place led it to underestimate the likely effects and risks resulting from the lease sales,” the lawsuit says.
The complaint alleges that the department also failed to consider how the lease sales would impact the environment compared to not leasing the waters, and failed to consider modifications to the lease conditions that could minimize harms to coastal communities and the environment.
The July 17 complaint names as defendants the Department of the Interior, along with interior secretary Zinke and assistant interior secretary Joseph Balash, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a component of the agency.
The Department of the Interior deferred questions about the lawsuit to the Department of Justice, which declined to comment.
According to the complaint, the Gulf of Mexico sees more than 2,100 oil and chemical spills each year from the roughly 2,600 already existing active wells from which oil and gas is pumped.
“Oil and gas activities also degrade air quality, contribute to climate change, erode coastal wetlands, impair commercial and recreational fishing opportunities, harm archaeological resources, and degrade recreational and aesthetic experiences,” the complaint says.
The lawsuit alleges violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.
The environmental groups are asking the court to declare that the leases were arbitrarily and capriciously approved, and to block their implementation.