Arctic oil leasing challenged in court — again

Lawsuit says feds don’t have enough info to make informed decision

Oil leasing in the Chukchi Sea has been challenged in court.
Conservation groups say more studies of rare bowhead whales are needed before permitting leases for offshore oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Strait. PHOTO COURTESY NOAA.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY —Conservation groups and some Native Americans coummunities in Alaska are once again looking for a judge to block offshore drilling leases in the Chukchi Sea.

In a statement explaining the legal challenge, the groups claim the most recent approval of the leasing is politically driven, and that the federal government lacks adequate scientific and biological information to make a leasing decision.

In an election year, the Bush administration is under pressure to at least look like its pursuing the development of domestic energy, as Republicans try to position the price of oil as a campaign issue. Of course, approving leases for drilling in the Arctic Sea won’t do anything to bring down the price of gas, but it will please  big oil companies that fund Republican candidates.

“Contrary to political mythology, rushing ahead with oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea will do absolutely nothing to lower the price of gasoline at the pump. And there is no demonstrated, or even remotely credible, ability to clean up a large oil spill in ice‐laden water of the Arctic Ocean,” said Eric Myers, policy director for Audubon Alaska.

The appeal filed was filed late last week in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. It’s the latest salvo in a long-running legal battle to ensure that decisions about the Chukchi Sea are based on sound science and precaution.

The Chukchi Sea harbors polar bears, bowhead whales, and walruses , while Alaska’s Arctic shoreline is home to a vibrant indigenous subsistence culture.

The lease sale was originally held in 2008 by the Bush administration. In 2010, the  Alaska Federal District Court determined that the original lease sale violated federal environmental laws and required the Department of Interior to reconsider the decision.

Last fall, the Obama administration affirmed the decision to offer millions of acres of the ocean for sale to oil companies despite widely recognized gaps in what’s known about nearly every species in the Chukchi Sea.

Even though this critical missing information prevents adequate analysis of the effects of oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea, the administration concluded that none of it, including information about what areas are important to species such as bowhead whales, walrus, and beluga whales, is essential to the lease sale decision.

“This Bush‐era lease sale in one of the most fragile and least-understood ecosystems in the world was never a good idea,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Four years later, all we’ve learned about the Chukchi Sea is how little we know. It’s time the Obama administration took the blinders off and admitted that neither it nor the industry is prepared for the risks of drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean.”

The groups filing the appeal are the Native Village of Point Hope, Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Oceana, Pacific Environment, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and World Wildlife Fund.

The organizations issued the following statements regarding the appeal:

“The Bush administration was wrong to open these fragile Arctic waters up to drilling without first having sufficient information about how those operations could impact the Arctic Ocean and the life it supports,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney with Defenders of Wildlife. “And yet, even after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, the Obama administration made the same mistake. This failure to learn from the worst environmental catastrophe this country has ever seen is not only irresponsible, it’s unacceptable.”

“Today’s appeal asks the court to require the Obama administration to comply with the law — and common sense — and look before it leaps into potentially catastrophic oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea. The administration must adequately assess missing basic scientific information about the region before deciding whether, where, and when to open it to drilling,” said Erik Grafe, an attorney at Earthjustice, which represents the groups.

“The lease sale puts our way of life at risk. The Chukchi Sea is home to the animals we have relied on for thousands of years to sustain us. It is home to bowhead whales, walrus, seals, and salmon. It is irresponsible to open the ocean to oil and gas drilling, particularly when so much information about the effects of drilling is unknown and there is no way to clean up an oil spill in these waters,” said George Edwardson, President of the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope.

“It’s unfortunate that we must litigate against the federal government to prevent premature drilling in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea,” said Lois Epstein, The Wilderness Society’s engineer and Arctic program director. “If the administration truly believes in science‐based decision‐making, it would address the key science gaps identified by the US Geological Survey in the Chukchi Sea before authorizing drilling.”


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