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Lawsuit Targets Exploratory Drilling on Offshore Tracts

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Interior Department failed to conduct an adequate environmental analysis of the potential harm from new exploratory oil drilling scheduled to begin within two years off California’s coastline, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by 10 environmental groups.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Oakland, targets 37 tracts of ocean floor clustered in areas from Oxnard to San Luis Obispo. These areas were leased decades ago to oil companies but never developed into producing oil fields.

The suit argues that the Interior Department’s proposal to give oil companies more time to explore these undersea oil fields lacked a full environmental review of new drilling, as required by federal law. Nor did it examine potential harm to fish or marine mammals from powerful air guns used in acoustic surveys of the seafloor for oil reserves, the suit contends.

The Interior Department issued a statement, delaying comment because it “just received a copy of the filing and has not had an opportunity to evaluate the lawsuit.”

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The suit comes three weeks after the department’s Minerals Management Service announced that it found “no significant impact” on the environment by extending offshore leases by roughly a year to three years.

Its analysis examined only what oil companies might do during the next few years of pre-drilling activities such as surveying and finalizing plans.

This approach defines the extensions of the leases too narrowly, the lawsuit argues, because it ignores the effects of exploratory drilling that is scheduled for the same day the pre-drilling activities are completed.

“By putting on these blinders and refusing to look at the environmental impacts of drilling, the government is not doing what the law requires,” said Andrew P. Caputo, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which joined with the Environmental Defense Center of Santa Barbara in filing the lawsuit.

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The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the League for Coastal Protection, the Sierra Club, the Surfrider Foundation and other conservation groups, is asking that the Interior Department do a full environmental impact statement on extending the leases. By law, that would include public hearings and give activists a forum to talk about the potential for devastating oil spills, such as the one that smothered Southern California beaches in 1969.

The 37 offshore tracts, which could tap into an estimated 1 billion barrels of oil, have been the focus of regulatory and legal battles almost since they were leased to oil companies between 1968 and 1982. Oil companies have filed their own lawsuit, demanding that the federal government allow them to drill or buy back their leases.


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