APNewsBreak: Suit challenges oil lease sale

Published December 13, 2011

| Associated Press

Environmental groups challenged the first attempted auction of offshore petroleum leases in the western Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, filing a lawsuit Tuesday in federal court.

The suit now before the District Court in Washington, D.C., claims that the federal government has failed to take steps to avoid a repeat of the BP oil spill, which leaked more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The suit was filed by Oceana, Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity.

Attorney Catherine Wannamaker said the action is not intended to prohibit bids from being taken, but the groups want the court to vacate the results of the sale based on claims within the lawsuit. That would effectively make the sale moot.

The U.S. Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement plans to auction 3,900 blocks off the Texas coast on Wednesday in New Orleans. The sale covers about 20.6 million acres.

The tracts are far from the site of the BP spill, which began in April 2010 about 50 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River.

A spokesman for the Interior Department did not immediately return a call for comment on whether the bids would be opened as scheduled Wednesday.

However, according to agency figures, the sale has already attracted 241 bids from 20 companies on 191 tracts. The last western Gulf sale in August 2009 drew 189 bids from 27 companies on 162 tracts.

Wannamaker said the offshore regulatory agency "is continuing the same irresponsible approach that led to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and harm still being felt in the Gulf."

"It's easier for the government and oil companies to return to business as usual without the oil spill's impacts on the Gulf, but it's illegal and irresponsible," said Wannamaker, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the environmental groups.

The suit alleges that the government has failed to advance preparedness for offshore oil spills and analyses to prevent oil spills since the Macondo well blowout. The environmental groups said the government failed to consider the merits of a delay in order to gather more information.

Before the blowout, the government generally held two offshore Gulf leases annually — one for the central Gulf off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and a second for the western Gulf, mostly off the Texas coast.

The western Gulf sale in recent years has been focused on potential natural gas finds, while deepwater oil has been more the target of the central Gulf, where the Macondo spill occurred.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge John D. Bates.

Oil prices on Tuesday surged past $100 per barrel.

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