Appeals court rejects arguments against new wells

06 28, 2012 by The Times-Picayune

A federal appeals court has rejected arguments by a coalition of environmental groups, who maintain that U.S. regulators failed to thoroughly review the potential dangers of drilling new deep wells in the Gulf of Mexico. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision supports a federal agency's approval, allowing Shell to move ahead with plans for 10 deep-water wells.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management failed to properly analyze potential catastrophic spills and underestimated the likelihood of a spill, the environmental groups argued.

The proposed wells would drill at a water depth of more than 7,000 feet, according to documents from the federal agency.

"One of the wells poses the threat of being Shell's 'worst case discharge' in the Gulf of Mexico in the event of a blowout," the environmental groups wrote to the appeals court, urging them to block the plans.

"Shell calculates a potential initial uncontrolled discharge of 405,000 barrels of oil per day and a projected total discharge of approximately 45 million barrels of oil if a relief well is necessary to kill the well," the environmental groups said in court filings.

However, the appeals court in Atlanta concluded that an environmental assessment extensively analyzed the risks and consequences for such an event.

The court's decision states that after taking into account new regulations since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management determined the risk of another spill was low.

In announcing its approval of the exploration plan last year, the federal agency said its review was done under heightened standards now being used after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.

"The standards are higher than they used to be, and further support our goal of ensuring that deepwater exploration is done more safely and with greater protections for the environment than ever before," the agency said.