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Federal Judge Dismisses Enviro Attempt to Delay GOM Lease Sales

A federal judge has ruled in favor of continuing the Department of Interior's Gulf of Mexico (GOM) lease sales, despite claims by environmental groups that questioned offshore conditions following the Macondo well blowout in 2010.

Research on the massive spill's impact is continuing, but that should not stop the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) from conducting GOM oil and gas lease sales, said U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras, writing for the District of Columbia court. He issued a 64-page opinion granting the federal defendants' motion for summary judgment [Oceana, et al. v. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, et al., American Petroleum Institute, et al., No. 12-0981].

The environmental groups have contended that more data needs to be obtained to ensure that offshore habitat is safe before any more lease sales are allowed. They claim that requirements under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) are being violated and demanded more complete study by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a department of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Contreras said the groups' contentions are baseless. Because the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) provides for an ESA review at two subsequent stages of the oil and gas production process, and allows Interior to suspend "any and all activity in the OCS at anytime if she determines that endangered species are at risk, the lease sale stage does not represent an irreversible or irretrievable commitment of resources.

"As such, BOEM was not required to complete consultation before it approved the lease sales at issue here," lease sales 216/222.

BOEM completed a draft supplemental environmental impact statement in mid-2011 for the 216/222 leases, but before the June 2012 sale, five environmental groups challenged it (see Daily GPI, June 19, 2012, July 1, 2011). However, the Central Planning Area lease sale was held, with 56 operators bidding on 454 tracts, some in the same area as Macondo, offshore Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama (see Daily GPI, June 21, 2012).

"BOEM took efforts to ensure that Lease Sale 216/222 itself would not jeopardize any listed species, while it awaited (awaits) NMFS's Biological Opinion [BO]," which isn't scheduled to be issued until November 2015, Contreras wrote. "First, BOEM included stipulations in Lease Sale 216/222 to provide for the protection of certain species" and it developed new safety regulations for deepwater drilling so that another blowout spill would not occur.

The plaintiffs argued that the BO being used to ready lease sales was published in 2007 and lacks specific information about the size and tract location, and not enough information about oil and gas production estimates. However, "all of this information is somewhat speculative at the lease sale stage, thereby negating the impact of any changes since 2007 on figures such as production estimates, tract sizes, etc.," the judge said.

Lease sales aren't the correct time to question impacts to threatened species, Contreras said.

"There is nothing about these particular lease sales that would jeopardize the endangered species located in the Gulf of Mexico. It is at later stages of OCS development that jeopardy, if at all, is more likely to occur." He also dismissed a claim that the NMFS was unreasonably delaying the new BO; the study is set to end in November 2015.

"An order compelling the agency to issue its BO immediately might undermine the entire process, and arguably have even harsher consequences than any delay."

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