Environmental Groups Act to Uphold Deepwater Drilling Moratorium

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, June 16, 2010 (ENS) – A coalition of environmental groups today took legal action on behalf of the U.S. government to oppose a lawsuit aimed at prematurely canceling the moratorium on deepwater oil drilling.

On June 7, Hornbeck Offshore Services, based in Covington, Louisiana, filed suit in federal court in the Eastern District of Louisiana against Ken Salazar in his capacity as secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The oil services company accuses Salazar and the Obama administration of violating the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act by issuing the six-month moratorium on certain deepwater oil drilling.

Hornbeck, which has some 1,300 employees, alleges that the shutdown of deep water drilling operations illegally interferes with its business contracts, is “arbitrary and capricious” and was not done in accordance with applicable federal regulations.

A Hornbeck Offshore Services supply vessel (Photo courtesy Hornbeck)

The company asks the court for a permanent injunction to stop the drilling moratorium.

The coalition of conservation groups wants the court to uphold the moratorium.

“The moratorium on drilling is crucial to ensure that safety and environmental measures are in place to prevent the next Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The industry attempt to overturn the moratorium is an unacceptable gamble with the fate of the Gulf coastÂ’s human and natural environment.”

After the BP-leased oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico April 20, President Obama ordered Secretary Salazar to begin a 30-day review of all exploration and production operations on the Outer Continental Shelf.

The review resulted in a report that concluded the drilling of new offshore deepwater wells “poses an unacceptable threat of serious and irreparable harm to wildlife and the marine, coastal, and human environment.”

On May 28, the Obama administration imposed a six-month moratorium on new deep water oil wells.

But in its lawsuit, Hornbeck argues that the moratorium is unjustified because, “The report contains no finding or evidence of a systemic failure by rig operators, drillers or other participants in offshore drilling operations to comply with current regulations or existing permits.”

“If anything, the moratorium does not do enough to end risky drilling, since there have yet to be true reforms to the lax safety and environmental oversight of offshore drilling,” said Sakashita. “The moratorium is already a compromise, which is narrowly tailored to allow most drilling to continue despite exemptions of environmental review.”

“We are still struggling to combat the largest environmental catastrophe ever faced by the Gulf of Mexico,” said Sakashita. “The industry challenge to the moratorium flies in the face of good common sense.”

The moratorium prohibits the Minerals Management Service from processing new applications for deepwater drilling operations, which affects 33 rigs.

The conalition of conservation groups includes the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Florida Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council, represented by staff attorneys, Earthjustice and the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The coalition points out that many of the suspended drilling applications have oil spill response plans that are similar to BP’s cookie-cutter plan that has been proven to be “tragically inadequate.”

The gulf region generates tens of billions of dollars annually for the commercial seafood industry and recreational fishing industry, the groups point out. As a result of the BP oil spill, one-third of the gulf is under a government-imposed fisheries closure.

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