Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said last week that new estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that show 217 square miles of Louisiana wetlands were washed away by hurricanes Katrina and Rita provide strong support for her legal action against the Minerals Management Service’s (MMS) recent western Gulf oil and gas lease sale.

In a lawsuit filed in July, Louisiana argued that the federal government failed to conduct an adequate environmental assessment of the damage to the state’s coastline caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita before moving forward with the lease sale. The state claimed that MMS’ environmental review of the lease sale fell short of the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. A court hearing is set for Nov. 13 to determine whether the leases will actually be awarded.

In a statement Wednesday, Blanco said the new estimates of wetlands losses by the USGS are almost nine times the amount of land usually lost in one year in the state.

“Earlier this year, MMS, another agency in that same Department of Interior, turned in an environmental assessment in preparation for the western Gulf oil and gas lease sale, stating there was no need to assess the damage of those two hurricanes, basing it on old, pre-storm data,” Blanco said. “The arrogance of MMS is outrageous and this is why I filed suit… This USGS report further strengthens that argument.”

Blanco said the judge in the case has “clearly indicated his concern for the process used by MMS to comply with its own laws and has stated the state’s suit would likely prevail on its merits.” In his ruling in August, U.S. District Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt of the Eastern District of Louisiana rejected the state’s bid for a preliminary injunction to stop lease sale 200 (see NGI, Aug. 21). However, the judge said repeatedly that some of the claims in the state’s lawsuit against MMS had merit and that he was inclined to issue a permanent injunction following the November hearing. Faced with this threat, Engelhardt warned bidders to beware because the leases awarded could turn out to be worth little.

“I am using every tool available to me to fight the federal government and will not allow them to continue to disregard the safety and environmental health of our fragile coastline any longer,” said Blanco.

Blanco also rapped Congress for leaving town without first passing Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) legislation that would give Gulf coastal states, including Louisiana, a bigger share of the royalties from leasing off their shores.

“Congress is leaving town to campaign for reelection without addressing the issues of greatest concern to the Gulf Coast. It’s past time for a reality check. It’s high time for Congress to get serious about saving a part of America’s coast that is critical to the nation’s economic and energy future,” the vocal governor said as lawmakers were preparing to leave to campaign for the November elections.

“Congress says they understand the urgency, and yet they continue to stall on a bill that will share revenues. Louisiana must have a steady stream of offshore revenues in order to get the massive coastal restoration and hurricane protection job done. Our delegation has been fighting hard on this issue. Now is the time for them to pull together to hold the feet of Congress to the fire.”

Despite weeks of talks, Senate and House leaders failed to reach a compromise on their vastly different OCS leasing bills. The Senate wants the House to accept its narrowly crafted bill (S. 3711) in place of the broader House measure (HR 4761), but the House has rejected this overture. They are expected to resume negotiations during the lame-duck session.

The Senate bill would make 8.3 million acres in the Lease 181 area in the eastern Gulf and in a tract south of Lease 181 available for oil and gas leasing; would provide protections (a minimum of a 125-mile, no-drill buffer zone) for Florida; and would give four Gulf coastal states a major share (37.5%) of the federal royalties from leasing in the areas opened by the bill to be used in restoring their receding coastal areas.

The more comprehensive House measure would give all coastal states, including the Pacific and East Coast states, the option to allow drilling within 100 miles of their shorelines and would remove the moratorium on drilling beyond the 100-mile mark. It would offer coastal states a greater share of the royalties than that proposed in S. 3711.

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