As Congressional hearings continue about the impacts of the recent Gulf oil spill, the National Law Journal via law.com reports that environmental law firm Earthjustice and New Orleans law firm Waltzer & Wiygul have filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of conservationists and fishermen against the U.S. Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS).

According to the NLJ article, the suit – Gulf Restoration Network and Sierra Club v. Salazar – charges that the agency violated federal law by exempting oil companies that drill in the Gulf of Mexico from disclosing blowout and worst-case spill scenarios as well as plans for dealing with them before approving the companies’ offshore drilling plans.

For the BP Deepwater Horizon rig exploration plan, MMS had issued a notice to oil companies telling them that they didn’t have to comply with those blowout and worst case oil spill rules, according to Earthjustice. In addition, it alleges that MMS failed to produce an analysis of potential environmental impacts in the event of a blow-out despite being required by law.

The legal challenge asks the court to invalidate the MMS practice of sending notices to oil companies informing them that they don’t have to comply with the rules and to order review of existing offshore drilling plans that do not comply with existing rules.

A quote from Earthjustice attorney David Guest sums up the case thus:

This case is about lax regulation by the Minerals Management Service. It is actually easier to get a permit for an offshore oil well than for a hot dog stand.”

U.S. President Barack Obama recently criticized what he described as a “cozy relationship” between the oil and gas industry and the MMS and charged U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar with reforming the agency. Salazar already has announced that MMS will be split into two, effectively separating its safety and environmental enforcement responsibilities from its leasing, permitting and revenue collection activities.

Check out an I.I.I. backgrounder on offshore energy facilities and insurance considerations.