Environment lawsuit: MMS waived oil safety rules

WASHINGTON Tue May 18, 2010 6:39pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Minerals Management Service, which grants offshore drilling permits, set aside safety regulations for oil exploration in parts of the Gulf of Mexico, environmental groups alleged in a lawsuit on Tuesday.

In a 2008 notice to oil companies with drilling leases off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama -- areas now threatened by the spill from the BP Deepwater Horizon rig -- the agency known as MMS waived requirements for documentation on what would be done in case of a blowout or a "worst-case scenario" spill, the lawsuit said.

The suit, filed on behalf of the Sierra Club and the Gulf Restoration Network by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, comes on the heels of more than 100 other lawsuits spawned by the spill. This federal suit seeks to reverse what it called an illegal waiver of safety regulations. The waiver was granted in 2008 and extends through 2013, according to a copy of the MMS notice to the oil firms obtained by Earthjustice.

As the latest in a series of environmental legal actions stemming from the BP spill, the suit names Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Assistant Interior Secretary Wilma Lewis and MMS Director Elizabeth Birnbaum as plaintiffs.

Oil companies need to provide data-based plans on how to respond to a deep-water blowout or catastrophic oil spill at an exploratory offshore well so they can act quickly with the appropriate equipment and personnel if the worst happens, said Joel Waltzer, a plaintiffs' attorney in the case.

This requirement "allows for proper planning of decision-making and equipment needs and response times and personnel needed to respond to events exactly like the one we have going on in the BP well blowout and oil spill," Waltzer said in a telephone briefing with reporters.

"A SACRIFICE ZONE"

By waiving this requirement for areas south of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, coastal communities in these states are unfairly singled out, said the Sierra Club's Mississippi director, Louie Miller: "We're concerned about being treated as a sacrifice zone."

The waiver does not pertain to most deep water exploratory drilling off the Texas coast, Earthjustice said, referring to the MMS document, which can be viewed here

If the waiver is reversed, scores of drilling leases would be affected, Earthjustice said in a statement, but did not specify which companies would be involved.

MMS has been under intense scrutiny since the April 20 BP blowout. President Barack Obama on Friday ordered a top-to-bottom reform at the agency, and Salazar announced a plan to divide MMS to separate those who collect mineral royalty payments from those who do safety inspections.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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