A federal appellate court judge yesterday upheld a lower court order postponing for at least three months sale of oil and natural gas leases off the New England coast.
The leases cover 700,000 acres of ocean bottom in Georges Bank, a prime fishing area about 60 miles from Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts. They were scheduled to have been sold in bidding beginning today at 10:30 a.m.
The lower court order, an injunction issued Saturday by U. S. District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity, came in response to a suit filed by the state of Massachusetts and the Conservation Law Foundation, a group representing environmental concerns. The plaintiffs argued that the sale would lead to "irreparable harm" to Georges Bank.
They asked for the three-month delay to give Congress a chance to amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to include an oil spill liability fund and a fishermen's gear compensation fund.
Garrity granted the delay, enjoining Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus from selling the leases for at least three months.
Judge Levin Campbell of the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in upholding Garrity, "When dealing with a resource, such as the Georges Bank fishery, which, as the district court says, 'has taken millions of years to accrue, and which will be with us for better or worse for untold centuries to come,' a delay of several months in order to give meaningful judicial consideration to these questions seems not unreasonable.
"While direct harm from exploration seesm unlikely to occur within the next several months, it could occur within the year," the judge said, "and permitting the acceptance of bids now could have irreversible consequences in other respects."
U.S. Attorney Edward F. Harrington and attorney Edward Bruce, representing a consortium of 11 oil companies, flew to Washington last night to argue for a stay of the injunction before the U.S. Supreme Court early this morning.
Arguing before Judge Campbell yesterday, Justice Department attorney John J. Zimmerman decried the lower court ruling as a violation of constitutionally mandated separation of powers.
"The district court has held a gun to the head of the secretary and the heads of Congress," Zimmerman said. "He [Judge Garrity] has said, 'If you want offshore oil leases you had best get some legislation passed.'"