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Lawsuit seeks to halt drilling at an even deeper BP site


From reports in the Texas Tribune and Houston Chronicle:

A former safety consultant for BP asked a federal judge Monday to order the oil giant to cease drilling at its Atlantis platform in the Gulf, citing federal regulators' failure to investigate potential dangers at the site -- described by BP as the deepest off-shore well in the world.

On the heels of the fatal Deepwater Horizon explosion last month
-- and all the questions surrounding it -- the allegations raise more doubts about how well federal regulators, specifically the Minerals Management Service, have inspected and keep track of the potentially lethal consequences of drilling in the Gulf.

Abbott and the nonprofit group are seeking a temporary injunction to immediately stop drilling at Atlantis, a platform operated 124 miles offshore in 7,000 feet of water.

BP repeatedly has claimed that it has all of the necessary engineering documents for the state-of-the-art Atlantis platform and is cooperating with officials from the MMS who have promised to investigate the allegations.

In the suit filed in Houston, Abbott says the government has done little in response to his allegations that BP dangerously cut safety corners by failing to ensure that final drilling platform design drawings for subsea components were made available to offshore workers who rely on them
-- especially in emergencies.

"As bad as the Deepwater Horizon is, it's one well," Abbott told the Chronicle on Monday. "This is several wells with three or four times the capability of destruction ... and BP just isn't doing normal engineering practices ..."

Before Deepwater Horizon, the British Petroleum oil rig that's now 5,000 feet under the Gulf of Mexico, there was the Atlantis Project.

When it began production in 2007 at a site about 200 miles south of New Orleans, that BP holding was the world's deepest oil and natural gas well. In 2009, Deepwater Horizon, a BP-leased platform located just 100 miles away from Atlantis, claimed that title for itself.

Now, while Congress investigates the April 20 Deepwater explosion that killed eleven people and spiked an underwater leak that continues to spill more than 210,000 gallons of crude oil a day, the Atlantis Project is at the center of its own firestorm
one that's been smoldering since long before Deepwater gained notoriety.

Yesterday, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation group filed suit <
> in a Houston federal court, alleging that Atlantis lacks critical safety documents required under federal law. The Mineral Management Service, the Department of Interior division charged with overseeing offshore mineral leases, is the target of the suit, which asks for an injunction against BP's operation of Atlantis.

"We have learned that, with respect to the Atlantis rig, the same safety deficiencies exist [as Deepwater]," says Mikal Watts, the San Antonio-based lawyer representing Food and Water Watch <
> . "There's a complete and wholesale lack of documentation that is required under federal law in order to operate an offshore rig on United States oil and gas properties."

To lease federal offshore lands, companies must comply with regulations promulgated by MMS that require up-to-date records, including "as-built" drawings that show the current layout of the platform and "piping and instrument diagrams" (referred to as P&IDs) that serve as operating manuals for safety and production equipment. Platform operators rely on the documents to show them what equipment located deep under the sea looks like
-- and they can be crucial in times of emergency.

Watts said the lawsuit was spurred by continued inaction from MMS, even after attention from Congress and the Deepwater Horizon explosion. "We have a situation where the industry is left to police itself," says Watts. "With respect to BP, there is a huge history of corporate malfeasance and safety problems, and we've got a situation where the wolf is being asked to guard the henhouse and that's not a good idea from the standpoint of safety."

Just last week, in the wake of congressional testimony highlighting problems with institutional deference to oil companies within the MMS, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced <
> plans to split the division into two sections, one that concentrated on collecting royalties from oil and gas companies, and another focused on enforcement of safety codes.

"I don't think the people of the Southeast United States have any idea how devastating this oil leak is going to be to their way of life," Watts says, adding that he hopes the lawsuit hits BP "in the pocketbook hard enough to get all their systems in compliance"

"I think that this is a repeat oil slick waiting to happen if BP is not forced to shut down this rig and get all their safety processes in place," he said.

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