The California Coastal Commission has the authority to review an extension of offshore oil drilling leases that the federal government granted to oil companies, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. The unanimous three-judge panel upheld a district court decision that said the extension of oil drilling leases was subject to review by the state under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act (16 U.S.C. Sections 1451-1465) and that the federal government did not adequately document that the extensions were exempt from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The case was seen as an important one in determining the state's ability to regulate drilling in coastal waters outside the three-mile-wide coastal zone that is directly under state control. At issue were 36 leases for oil and gas drilling several miles off the coast of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. Federal regulators granted the leases between 1968 and 1984. All the leases have been extended ("suspended" in federal parlance) in the past or the leases would have expired years ago because the four companies that own the leases have not produced paying quantities of gas and oil. The latest round of suspension was approved in 1999 and was the subject of the litigation. When the lessees requested suspension of all 36 leases in May 1999, the state Coastal Commission said it intended to review the suspensions for consistency with the California Coastal Management Plan. Federal agencies said the state had no authority to intervene and approved the suspensions. California then filed suit against the Interior Department and the four energy companies, arguing that the United States had violated the federal Coastal Zone Management Act and NEPA. U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled for the state. The Interior Department and the lessees appealed, but the Ninth Circuit upheld the lower court. The Interior Department argued that allowing the state to review lease suspensions would be duplicative because the state would get to review exploration or production activities that take place under the leases. Congress explicitly barred repeated review of activities described in exploration, development or production plans, the federal agency argued. But the Ninth Circuit ruled that Congress itself had rejected the Interior Department's line of reasoning. In 1990, Congress passed a bill overturning the decision in Sec'y of the Interior v. California, 464 U.S. 312 (1984), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that a lease sale was not subject to consistency review by the state. "Congress has made it clear that the statute does not prohibit consistency review of federal agency activities that are not subsidiary to exploration, and development and production plans," Chief Judge Dorothy Nelson wrote for the court. "The exploration plan and development and production plan are not the only opportunities for review afforded to states under the statutory scheme." Nelson noted that the state and its counties have never had the chance to review the leases, all but one of which predate adoption of the state Coastal Management Plan. The court also rejected the Interior Department's contention that no environmental documentation was required because the lease suspensions were categorically exempt, and none of the exceptions to the exemption applied. Instead, the court sided with the state and environmental groups. They argued that the lease suspensions were not exempt from review because of changed conditions, including the expansion of territory toward the lease areas by the threatened sea otter, and the designation of the Monterey Bay and Channel Islands national marine sanctuaries. "In many instances," Nelson wrote, "a brief statement that a categorical exclusion is being invoked will suffice. Here, concern for adequate justification of the categorical exclusion is heightened because there is substantial evidence in the record that exceptions to the categorical exemption are applicable. … [T]he agency must at the very lease explain why the action does not fall within one of the exceptions." The court pointed to regulatory provisions for endangered or threatened species and for ecologically significant or critical areas. The court also noted that Gov. Gray Davis and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein have expressed reservations about the lease suspensions because of the infamous 1969 offshore oil spill near Santa Barbara. The court did not order preparation of an environmental impact statement. The court only required the Interior Department to provide a "reasoned explanation for its reliance on the categorical exclusion." The Case: State of California v. Norton, No. 01-16637, 02 C.D.O.S. 11546. Filed December 2, 2002. The Lawyers: For California: Jamee Jordan Patterson, supervising deputy attorney general, (619) 645-2001. For Norton: Thomas Sansonetti, assistant attorney general, (202) 514-2000.