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Environmental Exemptions for 49 Gulf Drilling Projects Challenged in Court

All plans named in the suit state that no environmental review is necessary because there is no chance of a spill, but if there was it would be quickly cleaned up with no damage.

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, May 29, 2010 (ENS) -  The Center for Biological Diversity Thursday filed a lawsuit against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Minerals Management Service to strike down the agency's exemption of 49 Gulf of Mexico drilling projects from all environmental review. The suit was filed in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Just like BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling plan, all 49 plans named in the lawsuit state that no environmental review is necessary because there is essentially no chance of a large oil spill, and if a spill were to occur, it would be quickly cleaned up with no lasting damage.

"Secretary Salazar continues to exercise extremely poor judgment in approving these plans without meaningful environmental review," said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center. "He seems to have learned nothing from the oil pouring out into the Gulf of Mexico."

The ongoing oil spill began April 20 when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig leased by BP exploded and burned for 36 hours before sinking to the seafloor about 50 miles southeast of Louisiana.

Now, 40 days later, at least 480,000 barrels and up to 760,000 barrels of oil from the broken wellhead have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, according to a new calculation issued Thursday by a government-appointed technical team.

By comparison, the Exxon Valdez spilled 257,000 barrels of oil in Alaska in 1989.

"Since Salazar is unwilling to shut down the use of environmental waivers that even the President has denounced, we are asking the courts to do so," said Sakashita.

All drilling in the 49 plans would occur off the coasts of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

These coastal areas provide habitat for an array of imperiled species, including the Kemp's ridley and leatherback sea turtles, the sperm whale, the piping plover, the gulf sturgeon, and the bluefin tuna - and they are the very same areas hurt by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Nineteen of the plans were exempted from environmental review after BP's Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20. Many are deepwater or ultra-deep-water drilling operations, including plans by the Brazilian state-owned company Petrobas to drill at 7,150 feet and Anadarko to drill at more than 9,000 feet.

By comparison, the Deepwater Horizon had finished drilling the ill-fated well at 5,000 feet when the explosion occurred.

The Center is represented in the suit by Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.

The Center has also filed a lawsuit in district court in the District of Columbia challenging the policy underlying the decisions to exempt Gulf drilling from environmental review, and has initiated a legal action to require compliance with marine mammal and endangered species protection laws that have also been ignored in the Gulf.

Also this week, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal scientific petition to protect Atlantic bluefin tuna under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Already imperiled by overfishing because of their value in the lucrative sushi trade, Atlantic bluefin swim in the Gulf of Mexico. Now oil from the damaged Deepwater Horizon well is fouling the tunas' habitat during spawning season, the group warns.

"The oil will have devastating effects on eggs and larvae floating in the sheen, and will even harm adult tunas breathing oil into their gills, the Center said in a statement. "Also, heavy use of dispersants threatens tuna and dispersed oil is known to be toxic to fish."

Catherine Kilduff, author of the petition and oceans attorney for the Center, said, "Endangered status for bluefin tuna could mean enhanced protections for all fish and wildlife in the Gulf."

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