Four environmental groups are challenging the federal government’s approval of new deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM), specifically targeting exploration now under way by a Royal Dutch Shell plc subsidiary.

Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity (CBC), Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed the lawsuit Thursday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.

The groups said the federal government “illegally authorized new deepwater drilling by claiming that risky operations will cause no significant harm to the environment” despite last year’s Macondo well blowout, which killed 11 men and destroyed the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform.

The lawsuit specifically targets Shell’s plan to conduct new deepwater exploratory drilling about 225 miles southwest of New Orleans in waters about 2,000 feet deep. On Wednesday Shell sanctioned the Cardamom oil and natural gas field, a deepwater prospect in the GOM that is expected to produce 50,000 boe/d at peak production and more than 140 million boe over its lifetime (see Daily GPI, June 10).

Cardamom, scheduled to begin full operations in 2014, is in Garden Banks Block 427. Shell Offshore Inc. got the green light for Cardamom’s exploration plan in March after the deepwater drilling moratorium in the GOM was lifted; drilling ramped up within days (see Daily GPI, April 29; March 22). Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Management (BOEM) said the project complied with strict new rules issued following an investigation of the Macondo blowout.

“Finding that drilling in waters far deeper than the Deepwater Horizon site has no significant impact when we know how damaging last year’s spill was defies commonsense and echoes the irresponsible attitudes that preceded the disaster,” said SELC senior attorney Catherine Wannamaker, who is representing the groups in court.

“After a cursory 30-day review, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement determined that there would be no significant impact from new exploratory deepwater drilling by Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc. in about 7,200 feet of water,” the groups stated. “The worst-case scenario oil spill detailed in the plan is as much as 405,000 b/d (17 million gallons) for up to 128 days, which could result in a spill of 45 million bbl (1.89 billion gallons) of oil into the Gulf of Mexico…”

CBC attorney Dierdre McDonnell said approving Shell’s plan “is a test case for how the government will oversee risky drilling in the Gulf. As this lawsuit shows, so far we’re unimpressed. The government says it’s doing a thorough review, but we simply don’t see how you can conclude that a potential spill of a billion gallons of oil is ‘insignificant.'”

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