Feds Sued Over Calif. Oil Drilling

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Conservation groups sued the Bush administration (search) Wednesday for extending leases for oil and gas drilling off the central California coast, claiming that increased production would harm marine ecosystems and coastal residents.

The groups challenge the U.S. Interior Department's conclusion that no environmental impact would result from the extension of 37 leases for drilling off the coasts of Ventura (search), Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Those leases have not been used to produce oil or natural gas.

"Extending the leases would allow the companies to pursue development, which could have a tremendous impact to our marine and coastal environment and our air and water quality," said Linda Krop, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Center (search), one of the 10 plaintiffs.

The Interior Department hasn't seen the lawsuit and declined to comment, said spokesman Dan DuBray.

The leases were originally sold to oil companies between 1968 and 1984 and set to expire in 1999. The leases allow for the exploration, development and production of oil and natural gas, though lease holders must get additional permits to pursue such activities.

In a previous lawsuit filed by environmental groups, a federal appeals court ordered the Marine Management Service, a division of the Interior Department, to conduct an environmental analysis of the environmental impact of extending the leases. Last month the agency concluded that extending the leases for 13 to 37 months would not have any significant affect on the environment.

In Wednesday's lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, the groups claim the agency failed to consider all the potential impacts of extending the leases, including how future exploration, drilling and production could increase air and water pollution. They also allege that planned acoustic surveys using air guns could disturb or kill fish and marine mammals.