Environmental and Alaska Native Groups Continue Fight to Protect the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea from Risky Drilling

Coalition plans to send massive offshore sale back to court after Department of the Interior re-affirmed controversial oil drilling leases in the remote and fragile Arctic Ocean


Erik Grafe, Earthjustice, (907) 792-7102


Gwen Dobbs, Alaska Wilderness League, (202) 544-5205


Jim Adams, Audubon Alaska, (907) 276-7034


Rebecca Noblin, Center for Biological Diversity, (907) 274-1110


Marissa Knodel, Friends of the Earth, (202) 222-0729


Jonathon Berman, Sierra Club, (202) 495-3033


Faith Gemmill, REDOIL, (907) 750-0188


Kevin Harun, Pacific Environment, (907) 440-2443


Nathaniel Lawrence, Natural Resources Defense Council, (360) 534-9900

Twelve groups today announced their intent to bring a new challenge to the controversial Bush-era Lease Sale, which sold nearly 30 million acres of the Chukchi Sea’s outer continental shelf for oil and gas drilling and which the courts have twice sent back to the Department of Interior.  

Today, Earthjustice filed a report informing the Alaska federal district court that the Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Pacific Environment, REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands), Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and World Wildlife Fund intend to challenge Interior’s decision to reaffirm the Chukchi Sea lease sale.

The Department of the Interior’s decision to affirm the lease sale poses unacceptable risks to the Arctic and the planet. In reassessing the environmental effects of the lease sale, Interior disclosed that there is a 75 percent chance of one or more major oil spills if the leases are developed in the Chukchi Sea. There is no way to contain or clean an oil spill in Arctic Ocean conditions, and a spill could have catastrophic consequences for the people and wildlife of the region. 

Drilling activities under the lease sale threatens essential habitat for walruses and other wildlife in and around the rich and fragile Hanna Shoal. The imperiled Pacific walrus population, including a large proportion of mothers and calves, relies on the food-rich foraging area during the summer months. Walruses have limited access to food due to shrinking sea-ice cover, and drilling can cause herds to move away from their limited remaining foraging areas. Shell plans to start drilling in this critical area as soon as July. 

The lease sale decision also is directly contrary to President Obama’s commitment to take essential action to limit the worst effects of climate change for future generations. The best available science makes clear that drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean is not compatible with meeting the 2 degree Celsius cap for global warming agreed to by the world’s nations, and many countries now are saying that 2 degrees of warming is too much.

Despite all these major problems and others, Interior rushed the decision to affirm the lease sale to meet Shell’s desired schedule to drill on leases this summer, producing a flawed and unlawful decision. Shell’s plan doubles down on the company’s failed 2012 efforts with bigger, dirtier, and riskier operations. Other companies like ConocoPhillips and Statoil obtained leases in the Chukchi Sea, too, but they are holding off on any plans for exploration.

Quotations from Groups:

“Drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean only will hasten climate change at what is already ground zero for global warming,” said Earthjustice Staff Attorney Erik Grafe, who is representing the 12 groups. “Interior ignored recent science that identifies Arctic oil as incompatible with meeting basic international commitments to curb the worst effects of climate change, putting the region, wildlife, and our communities further at risk. Gone should be the days of catering to Shell and big oil, rather it is time for the Obama administration to protect these waters from the dramatic and long-lasting effects drilling will have here and around the world.”

“Letting Shell or any Big Oil company into America’s Arctic Ocean is risky and reckless. President Obama has made a commitment to address climate change and drilling in the Arctic Ocean is inconsistent with this goal. We know that this ‘extreme oil’ cannot be burned if we are to leave our kids a climate safe world. It’s time for President Obama and his administration to take the Arctic Ocean off the table for good,” said Cindy Shogan, Executive Director, Alaska Wilderness League.

“Drilling in the Arctic has never made sense from a risk perspective, and Shell proved that in 2012 when its drillship ran aground,” said Center for Biological Diversity Alaska director Rebecca Noblin. “Now we also know that Arctic drilling is foolish from a climate perspective. If we want to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we have to kick oil companies out of the Arctic and keep those fossil fuels in the ground.”

“The Department of the Interior should be ashamed,” said Friends of the Earth Climate Campaigner, Marissa Knodel. “From the unlawful lease sale to its rushed and flawed environmental analysis, the Department of the Interior appears willing to sacrifice the American Arctic Ocean to Shell’s reckless pursuit of oil. Rather than risk another toxic legacy and ongoing climate disruption, Interior should heed scientists’ warnings and leave Arctic oil in the ground.”

"Permitting new drilling in the Arctic Ocean comes with a 75 percent chance of an oil spill, and a 100 percent chance of worsening our climate crisis. This 'double-whammy' would be disastrous for endangered marine mammals such as walrus and whales," said Dan Ritzman, Alaska Program Director for Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign. "Both science and common sense is crystal clear in telling us that undeveloped dirty fuels, especially those in the Arctic, must remain in the ground if we are to avoid the worst consequences of climate disruption. Downplaying the threats drilling poses to our climate, communities, and environment—as Shell continues to do—does not in reality make the threats any less serious. The Obama administration must say no to drilling in the Arctic Ocean, cancel these leases, and remove future leasing from the five-year offshore drilling plan."

“Arctic marine ecosystems are already showing signs of severe stress as a result of climate change,” said Kevin Harun, Arctic Program Director, Pacific Environment. “Now is not the time to creating additional stressors, with potentially irreparable impacts, to the Arctic marine environment and its wildlife.”

“Drilling in the Arctic is a recipe for disaster,” said Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold. “It's reckless and defies common sense. Oil and water don't mix."


In January 2014, the Ninth Circuit Court of appeals ruled that the Chukchi Lease Sale 193 was held unlawfully. This was the second time the massive offshore oil and gas sale was sent back by the courts. The sale, originally rushed through in 2008 by the Bush administration and unsuccessfully justified once in 2011 by the Obama administration, was based on poor science and arbitrary economic assumptions. After examining all of the impacts of Lease Sale 193 via the revised environmental impact statement, the Interior should have concluded that no leasing should proceed in the Chukchi Sea. Arctic drilling is too risky to allow, proven by Shell’s disastrous 2012 drilling program.

Walrus hauled out on Bering Sea ice.
Walrus hauled out on Bering Sea ice. (Captain Budd Christman / NOAA Corps.)

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