Environmental groups claim victory in Federal oil lawsuit

California given authority to review federal leases off Santa Barbara Coast

provided by Environmental Defense

n a monumental victory for the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and anti-oil activists across the state, a federal judge ruled this month that the federal government must cancel its extension of 36 undeveloped oil leases off the coast of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, pending state review. The decision effectively puts a halt to current exploration plans underway in the Santa Barbara Channel.

    “The decision could not have come at a more timely moment,” said Linda Krop, Chief Counsel for the Environmental Defense Center. “The oil companies and the new Bush administration will now have to face the will of the people of California before forcing their projects upon us.”

    A coalition of ten environmental groups had joined the state's lawsuit challenging the federal government's decision to extend the 36 undeveloped oil leases off California's coast, without conducting state or environmental review. The EDC, which had originally pushed the state to file the lawsuit, represents the Sierra Club, Friends of the Sea Otter, CALPIRG, California CoastKeeper, Santa Barbara ChannelKeeper, Santa Monica BayKeeper, Get Oil Out, and Citizens Planning Association. Natural Resources Defense Council, on behalf of themselves and League for Coastal Protection, also joined in the suit, as did the Counties of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.

    “This unprecedented victory is a testament to the efforts put forth by environmental organizations across the state,” said Susan Jordan of the League for Coastal Protection. “The right to review these leases puts one more tool in California's arsenal as we continue our fight to protect the our coast from future offshore oil drilling.”

    “This is a big victory for California's coast,” said NRDC attorney Drew Caputo. “Before any more activities can take place on these oil leases, the government must make sure that our coast will be kept safe and clean.”

    The case involved a dispute over whether the California Coastal Commission had jurisdiction to review requests for extensions of 36 undeveloped oil and gas leases off the coast of California. The leases were originally sold between 1968 and 1984, and were not subject to Commission review at that time. In November 1999, the federal government granted extensions for the 36 leases, for periods ranging from 19-45 months, without consulting with the Coastal Commission. In response, the State of California, under pressure by the EDC and others, filed litigation against the federal government, raising claims of inadequate review under the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In January 2000, oil companies filed a motion to intervene in the state's lawsuit, which was granted by the court.

    A coalition of environmental groups then intervened as well, requesting that the State, via the California Coastal Commission, review the requested lease suspensions. EDC asserted that the Coastal Commission did indeed have jurisdiction to review the 1999 lease suspensions under the CZMA, in part due to the many changed circumstances that have occurred along the coast since the leases were first issued.

    The ruling will now allow the California Coastal Commission to review the possible impacts any new oil development may have on California's precious coastline. The multitude of issues to review includes impacts from oil spills, potential harm to the resources of the Channel Islands and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries, impacts to state and federally listed threatened and endangered species, including the southern sea otter, increased air and water pollution, conflicts with local policies and regulations restricting oil and gas development and inconsistencies with the California Coastal Act and Local Coastal Programs.

    The Environmental Defense Center is a nonprofit, public interest environmental law firm serving California's Central Coast. Since 1977, EDC has provided public education, organizing, advocacy, and legal services to community groups dedicated to environmental quality and health. For more information, please call Linda Krop, Chief Counsel, or Jenna Garmon, Community Affairs Director, at the Environmental Defense Center at (805) 963-1622