A coalition of groups filed an appeal today in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals challenging the approval of Lease Sale 193, which opened for oil drilling the remote Chukchi Sea, home to iconic species such as polar bear, bowhead whale, and walrus and to a vibrant indigenous subsistence culture.
There are widely recognized gaps in what we know about nearly every species in the Chukchi Sea, including beluga whales. (Florian Schulz / visionsofthewild.com)
The appeal, filed by Alaska Native and conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, is the next step in their long‐standing effort to ensure that decisions about the Chukchi Sea are based on sound science and precaution.
The lease sale was originally held in 2008 by the Bush administration. The Alaska Federal District Court in 2010 determined that the original lease sale violated the National Environmental Policy Act, one of the nation’s bedrock 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 we know 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.
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 Obama administration’s decision to affirm Chukchi Lease Sale 193 in America’s Arctic Ocean was a clear case of politics trumping science. We are asking the courts to require the Obama administration to comply with the law,” said Leah Donahey, Western Arctic and Oceans program director at Alaska Wilderness League. “Right now, Shell Oil’s drill ships are on their way to the Chukchi Sea to begin the most aggressive course of Arctic drilling in history, despite the fact that we still know so little about the impacts this drilling could have on the Arctic’s marine environment.”
“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 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.
“The rush to judgment here points up the folly of an indiscriminate ‘all‐of‐the‐above’ approach to energy development that is not only misguided but will do more harm than good,” said Charles Clusen, Alaska Project Director, Natural Resources Defense Council. “Even if commercial amounts of oil are found it will take a decade or more to get any of it to market. This oil at best can lower the price of gas by a few pennies far in the future while the oil companies will make huge profits. It’s time to slow this down and get it right.”
“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.
“Americans deserve affordable energy and healthy oceans. Neither will be achieved by drilling in the Arctic Ocean,” said Susan Murray, Senior Director, Pacific for Oceana. “Courts, communities, and this administration’s own scientists have pointed to the need for baseline science to guide decisions about the Arctic Ocean. It is time we started listening to them and doing what is best for Arctic Ocean and those who depend on it, rather than what might be politically expedient or good for an oil company’s bottom line.”
“This lease poses serious risk to Arctic communities who rely on subsistence resources for their traditional and cultural survival,” said Shawna Larson, Alaska Program Director for Pacific Environment. “There are huge knowledge gaps that remain on important areas for critical subsistence species, such as bowhead whales, and though a large blowout spill is possible, there are no means to respond or clean up a spill in the Arctic Ocean.”
“There remain huge knowledge gaps in scientific understanding about life in the Arctic waters and the potential impacts of drilling. But we do know that the Arctic is home to some of the most amazing scenery and wildlife on the planet, and a critically important subsistence resource for the coastal Alaska Native people,” said Dan Ritzman, Sierra Club Alaska Program Director. “We cannot afford to blindly entrust the future of one of our last wild frontiers, and the communities that rely on it for subsistence, to Big Oil. The Obama administration should not allow Shell to move forward with risky, dangerous plans to drill in this pristine area.”
“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 U.S. Geological Survey in the Chukchi Sea before authorizing drilling.”
“The risks and potential impacts associated with Arctic offshore oil development plans are unacceptably high at this stage because the industry has not adequately addressed the lessons of the Deepwater Horizon disaster,” said WWF’s Arctic Program’s Layla Hughes, Senior Program Officer for Oil, Gas and Marine Shipping. “Given this, and particularly in light of the difficult working conditions and lack of infrastructure found in the Arctic, it would be irresponsible to begin drilling.”
Read the appeal.