Enviros Challenge Shell’s Gulf Deepwater Drilling Permit

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, June 13, 2011 (ENS) – Earthjustice filed a legal challenge Thursday against the federal government, alleging flaws in the environmental risk assessment of Shell Oil’s plan to drill for oil in deep Gulf of Mexico water near the site of BP’s catastrophic 2010 oil well blowout.

In March, the federal government awarded Shell Offshore Inc. the first new deepwater oil exploration plan approved since the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion in April 2010 and the three-month long oil spill that polluted much of the Gulf of Mexico.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, BOEMRE, approved Shell’s plan after concluding that “an accidental spill event is not very likely to occur.”

The federal agency has based its analysis on a 1-in-4000 chance oil spill risk scenario even though industry documents show the chance of a major spill at 1-in-43, or 2.3 percent.

Gas from the damaged Deepwater Horizon wellhead is burned off by the drillship Discoverer Enterprise, May 16, 2010. (First Place in the 2010 U.S. Coast Guard Photo Contest by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley)

“No reasonable person would take a 1-in-43 chance of their house burning down, so why in heaven’s name would the federal government take a 1-in-43 chance of having another massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest.

Earthjustice filed suit on behalf of the Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Network, and the Florida Wildlife Federation in the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit.

The environmental groups claim the government’s risk calculations are flawed and Shell’s drilling plan is not sufficient to protect communities from another major oil spill along the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coasts.

“We’ve got to have proper oversight,” said Florida Wildlife Federation Executive Director Manley Fuller, “and this isn’t it.”

Shell’s exploration plan anticipates the company using the same type of blowout preventer that failed at BP’s Deepwater Horizon well last summer.

The environmental groups claim that federal regulators approved Shell’s exploration plan, even though the plan clearly does not take into account the weaknesses of blowout preventer technology in the deep sea environment.

During hearings by the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, numerous experts admitted that the technology has not been adequately tested for harsh deepwater conditions, but that is where Shell intends to drill.

“It is as if the government regulators have learned nothing from the BP disaster,” said Guest. “Before new deep water Gulf drilling occurs the government must make a realistic assessment of the risk to the Gulf’s ecosystem, its communities, and the many jobs that depend on tourism, fishing, and recreation. It has utterly failed to do so here.”

Shell’s plan says the company is prepared to deal with an uncontrolled blowout because it is a founding member of the Marine Well Containment Company and will have access to an integrated subsea well control and containment system that can be rapidly deployed.

But MWCC does not expect to have its system in place and ready for deployment until 2012, long after Shell expects to begin drilling, the groups point out.

“We are concerned about continuing business as usual in light of what occurred at BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster last year,” said Cynthia Sartou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network. “We feel the federal government needs to take a second look.”

Sierra Club attorney Devorah Ancel said approval of Shell’s Exploration Plan is troubling in view of the conclusions reached in the House Oversight Government and Reform Committee’s recent report examining the adequacy of the Obama administration’s decisions in the wake of the BP oil spill.

“The report concludes that the administration ignored critical input when it reorganized BOEMRE to address the systematic problems in regulating drilling,” Ancel said. “This latest approval demonstrates just that, as it continues to prioritize the interests of big oil at the expense of our natural resources, economy, and the livelihoods of communities across the Gulf.”

Guest said, “The Shell Plan should be withdrawn until the system it is relying upon is completed, deployable, and has been tested to the satisfaction of independent experts.”

Copyright Environment News Service,ENS, 2011. All rights reserved.