Feds Rush Incomplete Environmental Review of Oil and Gas Drilling in Arctic Ocean

Alaska office fails to adhere to new goals for responsible offshore drilling based on sound science

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) Alaska office, formerly the Minerals Management Service, today released a draft supplemental environmental impact statement for offshore oil and gas Lease Sale 193 in the Chukchi Sea in America’s Arctic Ocean. The statement comes just two months after a federal judge tossed out the Bush-era environmental impact statement and on the same day Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced plans to lift the moratorium on offshore oil drilling.

Today’s draft supplemental EIS chronicles these statements of missing information—over 130 pages worth in the government’s rendering—but concludes that none of the information is needed to make the decision to lease the Chukchi Sea to oil and gas companies.

The following statement is from Earthjustice, NRDC, 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 denouncing BOEMRE’s unnecessarily hasty and incomplete draft environmental impact review:

“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.”

Additional Background Information:

In July and August, 2010, an Alaska federal district court ruled that the former MMS had violated the National Environmental Policy Act in failing to fully analyze missing information and natural gas development in the Chukchi Sea before offering oil and gas leases there in 2008.  It sent the analysis back to the agency, now named BOEMRE, and directed it to identify what missing information about the Chukchi Sea was important to the lease sale decision and to obtain that information, absent a determination that it would be exorbitantly expensive to do so.

The amount of missing basic scientific information about the Chukchi Sea is astounding—a 30-page document submitted by the plaintiffs in the litigation outlined the literally hundreds of statements made by MMS in its overturned environmental impact statement acknowledging missing information about the Chukchi Sea environment and the potential effects of oil and gas development on wildlife and subsistence. For example, 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.

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