Environmentalists turn to court over offshore leasing rules

GULF OF MEXICO — Environmental groups want a judge to stop rules setting a framework for offshore gas and oil exploration in parts of the Mississippi Sound.

At a hearing yesterday, the Sierra Club and the Gulf Restoration Network asked Hinds County Chancery Court Judge William Singletary to order the Mississippi Development Authority to reconsider the rules governing leasing certain tracts.

The legal action centers not on whether drilling would be good for the state’s environment and economy but on whether MDA properly drew up the rules to allow seismic testing and leasing of parts of the Mississippi Sound by oil and gas companies. MDA issued the rules in 2012 and ruled against an administrative appeal from opponents, with the case then moving into court.

Drilling would be limited to areas seaward of the barrier islands, but closer to shore in the eastern edge of Mississippi waters near the Alabama state line. Experts say there’s natural gas under the sound but little oil.

The Sierra Club and the Gulf Restoration Network, which challenged the rules in March, say MDA erred by failing to prepare an economic impact statement that encompassed all the risks and benefits of oil and gas drilling. The agency limited its analysis to only the costs and benefits of seismic exploration and leasing, not to the actual drilling.

“They just didn’t look at all the impacts,” argued Ocean Springs lawyer Robert Wiygul for the opponents. Those who are fighting drilling presented their own study saying the risks to tourism outweigh any benefits.

Wiygul said MDA had already made up its mind and rigged the process to favor drilling.

“The outcome of the regulatory process was predetermined by MDA,” Wiygul said. “That is fundamentally arbitrary and capricious to start out your decision-making process.”

Assistant Attorney General Roy Tipton said MDA made its decision after a hearing where “substantial evidence” was presented.

He also said that the agency was just following the Legislature’s instructions from a 2004 law that told MDA to issue rules, and that it doesn’t have the power to limit the tracts that are put up for lease.

“There is nothing in MDA’s grant of authority that says they have the right to second-guess the Legislature or decide if they may or may not lease the land,” Tipton said.

Wiygul argued otherwise, saying the law only says MDA “may” decide to lease tracts.

“That does not say ‘shall,'” he said, adding the development authority has a duty to weigh the risks of drilling against the benefits.

But Tipton said MDA doesn’t have the capability to weigh environmental impacts, saying that’s a job for other state agencies. Plus, he said the Legislature has already decided the benefits outweigh the risks.

“The public trust balancing takes place at the Legislature and the people of the state of Mississippi have spoken,” Tipton said.

Singletary said he would issue a ruling later.

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