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Shell Drilling Plan Challenged By Environmental Groups

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ATLANTA -- Environmental groups asked a federal appeals court Thursday to throw out a U.S. government decision to approve a Shell oil exploration plan that involves five proposed wells under more than 7,000 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement approved the plan in May. The plan also includes three previously approved wells 72 miles off Louisiana.

Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council claim in a petition filed in the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta that the decision violates the law and that the environment would be harmed if it stands.

New regulations for deepwater drilling were imposed following last year's deadly rig explosion and Gulf oil spill.

The conservation groups argue that there is no basis to conclude that drilling in waters substantially deeper than the BP well that blew out would have no significant impact on the environment. BP's well that blew out was in 5,000 feet of water. Engineering experts and some industry observers have argued that more than a year after the disaster oil companies are still not adequately prepared to prevent a deepwater blowout or be able to efficiently deal with one if it were to occur again. The industry says it is prepared and it is eager to get back to business in the Gulf.

A moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf was imposed after the BP oil spill. It was lifted in October, though permits have only started to flow again in recent months. The industry has prodded the government to move faster, while environmental groups have encouraged the government to slow down.

Shell said in a statement that the petition "fails to take into account the comprehensive nature of the approved exploration plan." The company said the plan reflects numerous improvements to enhance safety and to protect the environment. Shell said it would help the government defend the approval. A spokeswoman for the offshore drilling agency declined to comment on the petition.

Approval of an exploration plan is not an approval to drill. A drilling permit must be issued for that. The government has not yet issued a permit for the project the environmental groups – represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center – are objecting to.

Separately, the government approved in March a Shell exploration plan involving a project 130 miles off Louisiana, south of Lafayette. The offshore drilling agency later approved a permit to drill a new well in 2,721 feet of water. Shell said that as of Thursday the company was preparing to drill that well, but had not yet started.

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