Today, the CEO of Shell announced that the oil company will forgo its plan to drill for oil this year in the Chukchi Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean. As the company’s failed efforts to drill in 2012 demonstrated, it is too risky to try to drill for oil in the remote, stormy, and icy Arctic seas.
“Shell’s decision today means America’s Arctic waters are safe from big oil for another summer,” said Erik Grafe, Earthjustice attorney. “The Department of the Interior now needs to take a hard look at whether the Chukchi Sea should be open for oil drilling at all, beginning with a full and public environmental impact statement process that addresses last week’s Ninth Circuit decision about the Chukchi Sea leases and does not minimize the risks of oil drilling in this vibrant but vulnerable sea.”
Last week, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Department of the Interior violated the law when it sold offshore oil and gas leases, including those on which Shell planned to drill, in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska. The decision stems from a lawsuit filed by a coalition of Alaska Native and conservation groups made up of: 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. Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, represented the groups.
The Court agreed with the groups that the Department of the Interior failed to adequately analyze the potentially dramatic environmental effects of the sale before offering the leases. It determined that the agency had analyzed “only the best case scenario for environmental harm, assuming oil development,” and that this analysis “skews the data toward fewer environmental impacts, and thus impedes a full and fair discussion of the potential effects of the project.” The agency will have to revise or supplement its analysis for the lease sale once again and must reconsider its lease sale decision.
The Chukchi Sea lease sale, Sale 193, was originally held in 2008 by the Bush administration. It offered nearly 30 million acres in the Chukchi Sea for oil drilling—an area larger than the size of Pennsylvania. Prior to the lease sale, there were no active oil leases in the sea. In 2010, the Federal District Court in Alaska determined that the original lease sale violated the National Environmental Protection Act, one of the foundations of U.S. environmental law, because the Department of Interior had failed to address the widely recognized gaps in what is known about nearly every species in the Chukchi Sea. It required the agency to reconsider the decision. In October 2011, the Department of the Interior decided to reaffirm the lease sale, and the Alaska District Court upheld the decision. The appeal decided last week followed.
The Chukchi Sea is part of America’s Arctic Ocean north of Alaska. It is home to iconic species such as polar bears, walrus, beluga whales, bowhead whales, and seals. It is also home to vibrant Alaska Native communities that have depended for millennia on the ocean for their subsistence way of life. The region is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, putting tremendous strain on its wildlife and people. There is currently no oil and gas development in the Chukchi Sea. The Chukchi Sea and its coast are remote—the coast contains only four small communities that are not connected to a road system, lack deep-water harbors, and can only be reached by plane or, in summer, by boat. The region is hundreds of miles from the nearest coast guard station and lacks rescue and oil spill response capacity.