Interior Dept. sued over BP's oil spill response plan

Michelle Massey Jun. 16, 2010, 11:00am

NEW ORLEANS (Legal Newsline) - The Gulf Restoration Network and the Sierra Club have filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior for approving BP's "grossly exaggerated" Oil Spill Response Plan.

The federal lawsuit, filed June 3 in New Orleans, is asking the Court to declare the response plan unlawful and prevent the government from relying on it for future approval of drilling permit applications.

The Sierra Club argues that the response plan exaggerated that company's oil spill response and recovery capabilities in the event of a major blow-out during the drilling of a deep water exploration well.

Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, federal offshore lessees must have approved oil spill plans in place before the Minerals Management Service can approve their exploratory plans and issue drilling permits.

According the lawsuit, the purpose of the act was to strengthen provisions concerning oil spill prevention efforts and response capabilities. The plan should detail how the company would respond to a worst case discharge lasting thirty days.

BP's 2009 Gulf of Mexico Regional Oil Spill Plan was approved by the Minerals Management Service on July 21, 2009. The plan included three worst case discharge scenarios: For a pipeline within 10 miles of shoreline, for its Thunder Horse operations and for exploratory drilling rig operations.

BP estimated that the highest discharge from an uncontrolled blowout with an exploration well would be 250,000 barrels of oil per day.

The company listed that its response equipment would be capable of recovering, under adverse weather conditions, approximately 490,000 barrels of oil per day.

It also claims it could disperse approximately 5,500-7,600 barrels of oil per day using chemical dispersants, with an assumption that the dispersants would be 90 percent effective.

The Sierra Club and the Gulf Restoration Network claim at the time the oil spill response plan was approved, the Minerals Management Service knew that oil containment and recovery was at best 10-15 percent of the spilled oil and at worst "considerably less."

"Nevertheless, it approve an oil spill response plan in which BP represented that it could recover 197 percent of the daily discharge from an uncontrolled blowout of 250,000 barrels per day," the plaintiffs argue.

Further, the lawsuit accuses the government agency of knowing that chemical dispersants were only 33 percent effective but yet still approving a response plan that assumed a 90 percent effectiveness rate.

The environmental groups state that the approval of BP's plan was "patently arbitrary and capricious."

The groups are asking the Court to declare the response plan unlawful and prevent the Minerals Management Service from approving future BP Exploration Plans or future drilling permit applications related to those plans.

The defendants named in the lawsuit include the Department of the Interior, Ken Salazar, secretary of the Interior Department, Bob Abbey, acting director of Minerals Management Service of the Interior Department, and Lars Herbst, regional director of the Minerals Management Service, Gulf of Mexico Region.

The environmental groups are represented by Alisa Coe, David Guest and Monica Reimer of Earthjustice in Tallahassee, Florida.

U.S. District Judge Carl J. Barbier is assigned to the case.

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