Court Stops Oil and Gas Drilling in Alaska’s Lease Sale 193

JUNEAU, Alaska, July 21, 2010 (ENS) – A federal court today halted all activities under an oil and gas lease sale in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s north coast pending further environmental review by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, formerly the Minerals Management Service.

The court determined that the agency failed to meet its obligation under the law to analyze the importance of missing basic scientific information about the Chukchi Sea and verify whether it could obtain the information prior to offering leases in the sea.

The court also faulted the agency for failing to analyze the potential impacts of possible natural gas development from the controversial lease sale, known as Lease Sale 193.

Earthjustice represented the Native Village of Point Hope, City 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 in a challenge to the lease sale in federal court in 2008.

“This is an important decision directing the secretary to consider the need for more information on the Chukchi Sea,” said Erik Grafe, an attorney at Earthjustice. “We have long argued that more science, more data and more research is needed in the sensitive waters of the Arctic Ocean before oil and gas lease sales or drilling are allowed occur.”

Sunset over the Chukchi Sea’s Alaska coast (Photo by Krestia)

“Federal agencies have a basic obligation under the law to fully assess missing information about potential impacts of their actions, and to obtain it if they can, before they act,” Graf said. “In this case, the court decided that the Minerals Management Service did not meet its obligation before it issued oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea.”

“We are pleased with this decision,” said Caroline Cannon, president of the Native Village of Point Hope. “We hope Secretary Salazar will use this chance to fundamentally reconsider oil and gas leasing in the Chukchi Sea, our ocean and our garden. We hope the secretary sees where we are coming from and honors his commitment to support tribes and our efforts to carry on the subsistence traditions of our elders. There is too much at stake to take shortcuts,”

The 30 million acres of the Outer Continental Shelf Chukchi Sea 193 lease area is core habitat for polar bear and Pacific walrus, and encompasses the migration route of the bowhead whale, which the Inupiaq people of the North Slope have subsisted on for thousands of years.

Despite the significance and sensitivity of the Arctic Ocean, there is a profound lack of basic knowledge about the sea and the wildlife that inhabits it, the plaintiff groups maintain.

They point to lack of information on whale migrations and feeding habits. There is no reliable population estimate for species of walrus or seals, and no population estimates for polar bears are available for the Chukchi Sea.

The plaintiffs argued that global climate changes are “wreaking havoc on sea ice, upon which many species depend for survival.”

“An oil spill on any scale in this sensitive and often harsh climate would have devastating impacts,” the groups said in a statement today. “No technology exists to clean up an oil spill in these Arctic waters.”

“This decision halting new drilling in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea represents a great opportunity for the Obama administration to take a new look at the risks of offshore drilling to our oceans, our coasts, and marine wildlife,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife and a former head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Clinton administration.

“The Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf has demonstrated clearly just how risky offshore oil drilling can be, and the risks in the remote and wild Arctic Ocean are simply too great to take.”

“This decision halting new drilling in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea represents a great opportunity for the Obama administration to take a new look at the risks of offshore drilling to our oceans, our coasts, and marine wildlife,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife and a former head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf has demonstrated clearly just how risky offshore oil drilling can be, and the risks in the remote and wild Arctic Ocean are simply too great to take,” she said.

“The past few months have taught us all a painful lesson about the risks of offshore drilling,” said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune. “An oil spill in the Arctic’s broken sea ice would be impossible to respond to.”

“A spill would be the nail in the coffin for Arctic communities and wildlife like polar bears, which are already struggling to survive. And where there is offshore drilling, there are oil spills,” said Brune. “This lease sale never should have happened. It was the product of the same broken system that led to poor oversight of BP’s drilling operations.”

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