Drilling "under the radar"

A new twist in California's longtime fight with the federal government over offshore drilling rights.

By Page Rockwell
Published March 14, 2005 10:37PM (EST)

Last week brought a new twist in California's longtime fight with the federal government over offshore drilling rights. Ten California conservation groups hit the Bush administration with a lawsuit, claiming that the federal government is trying to hide its illegal extension of 37 currently undeveloped oil and gas leases off the state's central coast.

Some background on the battle: The leases were due to expire in 1999, but the Clinton administration granted the lessees five-year extensions. California filed suit in protest, arguing that the Interior Department had violated federal law by renewing the leases without studying the environmental impact of their development, and by failing to invite California to review the decision.

In 2001, the federal district judge on the case sided with California, and prohibited activity at the lease sites until the Interior Department completed an environmental impact report. California had reason to hope the matter would end there -- the Bush administration had recently protected Florida's coastline by buying back its offshore drilling leases. But Florida is the land of Brother Jeb -- and the Bush White House had a different plan for California, opting to appeal the judge's decision and ignoring predictions that the sites' likely oil yield would only fuel the U.S. for two months. (At the time, California's then-governor Gray Davis wondered publicly if the president's lack of consistency on the issue had any connection with Gov. Jeb Bush's reelection bid.) Nonetheless, the Bush administration lost its appeal in 2002, and the Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service reluctantly got to work on complying with the law, assessing the environmental impact of developing California's offshore drilling leases.

Last month, the MMS came out with its findings, concluding that there would be no significant environmental impact from extending the leases. Nominally, the Interior Department has fulfilled its obligation, and in theory the leases can be unfrozen and companies can proceed with development. But environmental groups in California smelled something fishy in the MMS report, and discovered that the findings only took into account potential environmental impacts for the first 13 to 37 months of the leases. The National Resource Defense Council, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, argues that during this period, the oil companies would only plan for the exploration, development and drilling of the sites -- that the report doesn't explore the likely effects of actual drilling.

Linda Krop, a spokesperson for the co-plaintiff Environmental Defense Council, argued in a press release that the report's narrow focus violates the law: "The law is clear that a public agency must address all of the reasonably foreseeable actions and impacts that may flow from a decision. In this case, the sole purpose of the extensions is to allow the oil industry to commence drilling and production on the leases."

NRDC attorney David Newman agreed, telling War Room: "The federal government is trying to sneak these leases under the radar."

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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