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Bush Administration Sued for Extending California Offshore Oil, Gas Leases

Ten conservation groups last Wednesday sued the Bush administration for extending 37 undeveloped oil and natural gas leases off the Central California coast after concluding that no significant environmental harm would result from the action.

The groups, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Environmental Defense Center (EDC), filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, claiming that Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) neglected to consider all of the potentially adverse effects from extending the leases. Instead, they alleged that the agency conducted a "narrow review" of the impact of the exploration activities that would take place over the next 13-37 months.

The lawsuit also challenged the alleged failure of the MMS to consider alternatives to developing the leases, or to analyze cumulative impacts, including other oil and gas development projects and proposals to import liquefied natural gas.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit were Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the Interior Department, MMS and Peter Tweedt, regional manager of MMS for the Pacific Region.

The Interior Department originally sold the leases to producers between 1968 and 1988, according to the NRDC, a non-profit environmental group with offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Development of the leases, which are located off the coasts of Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, would double all historic oil production off the coast of California, it noted.

"Clearly large scale oil and gas development will have massive impacts on marine mammals, fish, corrals and the people who depend on healthy oceans, and yet the Bush administration is pretending there aren't any impacts," said NRDC attorney David Newman. "It is critical that the public and decision-makers have the benefit of a full analysis" before deciding whether to extend the leases, noted Linda Krop, chief counsel for the EDC in California.

"The federal government is flying blind by ignoring the impacts of oil and gas development on coastal and ocean ecosystems," agreed Melvin Nutter, chairperson of the League for Coastal Protection, also one of the plaintiffs.

Other plaintiffs included The Otter Project, Sierra Club, Citizens Planning Association of Santa Barbara County, Defenders of Wildlife, Environment California, Get Oil Out!, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper and the Surfrider Foundation.

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