Lawsuits Seek to Curb Deep Wells in Gulf of Mexico

May 19, 2010

Environmentalists seeking to curb oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico have filed federal lawsuits to shut down a major BP platform and close a government loophole for new oil and gas exploration.

The lawsuits, filed in Alabama and Texas, target the federal Minerals Management Service, the much-criticized agency that oversees offshore energy leases.

Since a blowout on BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform last month killed 11 workers and triggered a massive spill, the agency has approved at least nine deep-water exploratory wells in the Gulf with minimal environmental reviews.

The Alabama lawsuit seeks to end the practice. It would also force the agency to revoke the permits recently issued to Shell Offshore Inc., Kerr-McGee Oil & Gas Corp., Anadarko E&P and other companies.

The deepest of those projects would operate at water depths of more than 9,000 feet.

That’s almost twice the depth of Deepwater Horizon, which has released millions gallons of oil into the Gulf since it exploded and burned. The depth has complicated efforts to contain the leak a mile below the surface. An attorney for the plaintiffs said the spill makes it “abundantly clear” the government needs to review deep water projects more closely.

“They need to be analyzed fully before given a blanket rubber stamp exclusion,” said Catherine Wannamaker with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The Texas suit seeks to shut down BP’s Atlantis platform, which has operated with incomplete and inaccurate engineering documents.

Atlantis is stationed in 7,070 feet of water more than 150 miles south of New Orleans. It can produce 8.4 million gallons of oil and 180 million cubic feet of natural gas daily.

In 2009, an independent firm hired by BP found that the giant petroleum company was violating its own policies by not having completed engineering documents on board the Atlantis when it began operating in 2007.

BP responded by saying it had made “procedural changes” related to Atlantis in response to the outside investigation. But the company said safety was never an issue.

The Texas lawsuit was filed by Washington, D.C.-based Food and Water Watch and Kenneth Abbott, a former BP subcontractor.

Abbott claims he was fired last year after voicing concerns over Atlantis, and says his warnings were later ignored by federal officials.

“At BP I battered my head against the wall. They didn’t care. The government agencies didn’t care,” Abbott said.

Citing BP documents, the lawsuit asserted that a blowout from Atlantis could be far worse than Deepwater Horizon, which already ranks as one of the worst in the nation’s history.

“In two days, a blowout from the BP Atlantis would spill more oil than the Exxon Valdez,” an attorney for the plaintiffs wrote.

MMS officials did not respond to several requests for comment.

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