Getting It Right for the Arctic Ocean
Thanks to long-running Earthjustice litigation on behalf of Alaska Native and conservation groups, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ordered the Department of the Interior to reconsider its decision to issue millions of acres of oil leases to companies like Shell and ConocoPhillips in the Chukchi Sea. In response, the government has suspended drilling
A court gave the Arctic great news today. 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 in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska, including the leases on which Royal Dutch Shell wants to drill. This is the second time a court has ruled against the Department’s decision to open this remarkable sea to offshore drilling.
The Court said the Department made arbitrary assumptions about development that may have low-balled the potential environmental impacts of the sale in violation of a bedrock environmental law and sent the decision back for the agency to reconsider.
The agency must now revise its analysis, disclose the full potential impacts of oil development in this fragile but dangerous environment, and reassess whether to allow oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea.
This is once again an opportunity to send a loud and clear message to the Obama administration—going to extremes to extract fossil fuels from such a fragile, important habitat and culturally rich area just doesn’t make sense. 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.
Walruses in the Chukchi Sea. The Chukchi is home to a rich variety of marine life. (USGS)
Beluga whale pod in the Chukchi Sea. Belugas are social animals that often migrate, hunt and interact with each other in groups ranging from ten to several hundred. (Laura Morse / NOAA)
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 a smattering of small Alaska Native 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.
Shell’s drilling unit Kulluk, being moved for repairs after grounding in 2012. (James Mason / Earthjustice)
Remember when Shell tried to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean in 2012? It was a disaster—one of its drill ships ran aground suffering so much damage it now looks to be scrapped, Shell’s oil spill containment dome was “crushed like a beer can” and as a result the company was not allowed to drill into oil bearing rock, Shell’s drill ships incurred over a million dollars in fines for air pollution violations, the Coast Guard and the Department of Justice opened investigations for marine pollution and safety violations, and the company was chased from one drill site by a giant ice floe and trapped at another by encroaching ice and bad weather. Shell would like you to forget all that.
But the truth is, drilling in the Arctic Ocean is too risky for the Arctic and the planet. Production of Arctic Ocean oil not only risks pollution and harm to the region, but releases billions of tons of new carbon into the atmosphere. It makes no sense to open up the fragile, irreplaceable, and already melting Arctic Ocean to risky drilling for dirty oil that will only exacerbate climate change already wreaking havoc on the Arctic and elsewhere. The administration should halt drilling and cancel the Chukchi leases.
Kittiwakes fly over the Chukchi Sea. Many bird species migrate through and breed in the Arctic. (Florian Schulz / visionsofthewild.com)
Home to many iconic wildlife species, the Chukchi Sea is part of America’s Arctic Ocean, north of Alaska. It is also home to vibrant Alaska Native communities that have depended for millennia on the ocean for their subsistence way of life. (Karen E. Frey / NOAA)
As the deputy managing attorney of Earthjustice’s Alaska regional office, Erik’s work focuses on the Arctic, working with conservation and native groups to fend off attempts by oil companies and the federal government to open new offshore oil and gas operations in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.
Opened in 1978, our Alaska regional office works to safeguard public lands, waters, and wildlife from destructive oil and gas drilling, mining, and logging, and to protect the region's marine and coastal ecosystems.