Opinion: What’s the rush on Chukchi oil drilling?

We're literally going to the ends of the Earth to feed our addiction to oil.

Revamped minerals agency stumbles in its effort to address impacts of Arctic ocean drilling

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Along with rushing back into deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama administration apparently is also eager to speed the review process for offshore drilling in the far north — a testament to the country’s addiction to oil.

A supplemental environmental study for an offshore oil and gas lease sale in the Chukchi Sea includes very little of the information specifically mandated by a federal court two months ago, when a judge ruled that the federal agency violated the law and its own regulations by leaving critical information out of the study.

Among other things, the agency admitted that it does not know where there are important feeding areas for endangered bowhead whales—a species central to the subsistence culture of indigenous Alaska Native communities on the Chukchi Sea coast and highly sensitive to industrial disturbance. The agency also admitted that it did not know enough to determine whether oil and gas activities would or would not have a significant effect on marine mammals.

The draft supplemental Environmental Impact Statement lists all the information that was missing from the first study, approved under the Bush administration, but concludes that it’s not needed for the leasing decision. The draft document was prepared by the Alaska office of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement Alaska office, successor to the discredited Minerals Management Service. The supplemental EIS is online here.

As one, the conservation community took umbrage at the suggestion that the information presented in the draft adequately addresses environmental concerns associated with drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

Here’s the obligatory statement of outrage from the a coalition of groups, including Earthjustice, The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Oceana, Pacific Environment, Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, REDOIL, The Wilderness Society, Native Village of Point Hope, Center for Biological Diversity, Alaska Wilderness League, and Defenders of Wildlife. And they have a point:

“Today’s draft environmental impact statement purports to contain the analysis required by a federal district court on the impact of oil and gas development in the Chukchi Sea. Clearly, BOEMRE’s Alaska office has not taken its obligation seriously. We are dismayed that the agency has rushed out an incomplete analysis that does not fill any of the gaps found in the 30 pages of material where the federal government admitted enormous data gaps about basic biology and habitat use of endangered whales, threatened polar bears, walrus, seals, sea birds, migratory birds, fish and other species that live in the Arctic Ocean.

“It may have a new name, but in this case BOEMRE’s Alaska office looks like the same old MMS. Rushing out a new justification for the Chukchi Sea lease sale before it has had a chance to fill any of the hundreds of gaps in critical knowledge about these pristine waters shows that the Alaska office still has the drilling blinders on. While Sec. Salazar lifts the ban on offshore oil drilling, Alaska waters are at even greater risk as incomplete environmental assessments continue to emerge from the Alaska BOEMRE office.

“If we have learned anything from the Gulf spill, it should be that we should study the potential environmental effects before we proceed with drilling. Simply stating that the agency does not know the impacts is not acceptable. A catastrophic oil spill in the harsh, remote waters of the Arctic Ocean will devastate that region. Twenty-foot ocean swells, frozen seas, subzero temperatures and a lack of infrastructure will make an oil spill of any size nearly impossible to clean up.

“The agency should at least wait for its own experts, the U.S. Geological Survey, to finish their report about critical missing information on the Arctic Ocean, due this April, before going forward with its review. This administration has committed to following science in its policy decisions. The Alaska office of BOEMRE should not consider itself exempt from this promise.”

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