- Department of the Interior unlawfully sells Arctic Ocean lease to oil companies … again
Department of the Interior unlawfully sells Arctic Ocean lease to oil companies … again
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In February 2008, the Department of the Interior offered nearly 30 million acres of pristine, sensitive Arctic ecosystem in the Chukchi Sea for oil and gas leasing, known as Lease Sale 193. The agency’s environmental impact analysis failed to properly evaluate basic scientific information about the Chukchi Sea and the effects of oil and gas activities, and was challenged in the United States District Court for the District of Alaska by Earthjustice on behalf of a group of indigenous and environmental organizations. The appeals court sided with the environmental and indigenous groups, and ordered the agency to conduct a supplemental environmental impact analysis to identify and obtain the missing information.
The draft supplemental environmental analysis was released on November 7, 2014, and the final version published on February 12, 2015. Despite finding that there is a 75 percent chance of one or more large oil spills, the Department of Interior affirmed all leases within Lease Sale 193 on March 31, 2015. Affirmation of Lease Sale 193 opens the door to Shell Oil’s oil and gas exploration plans in the Chukchi Sea this summer, which the Department of the Interior approved on May 11, 2015.
Friends of the Earth, along with eleven other environmental and Alaska Native groups, are legally challenging the Department of the Interior’s affirmation of Lease Sale 193 on the grounds that the agency failed to consider significant new information about the climate impacts of the lease sale, and to consider a reasonable alternative. There is a lack of scientific information about the Chukchi Sea, and lack of Arctic-specific regulations and protocols to address the impacts of oil and gas development that necessitate this legal challenge. To date, there has been no comprehensive benchmark study of the marine environment for the Chukchi Sea, and the U.S. Arctic Research Commission has called the American Arctic Ocean one of the “least studied and most poorly understood marine environments,” which makes the impacts of oil and gas development difficult to predict and prepare for. Congress has yet to pass a single law strengthening federal oversight of offshore oil and gas development, drilling safety, or environmental safeguards in the event of a disaster, and the Department of the Interior’s proposed Arctic-specific standards for offshore drilling are not enough to mitigate the devastating environmental and economic impacts of an oil spill.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management within the Department of the Interior approved Lease Sale 193 despite finding that there is a 75 percent chance of a large oil spill. This legal action would challenge that decision, arguing that the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act when assessing the effects of the lease sale in two key ways. First, the agency failed to consider a reasonable alternative that excluded ecologically sensitive areas, including the Hanna Shoal, a biological “hot spot.” Second, the agency failed to consider new information about the climate effects of downstream oil and gas consumption from the lease sale and continued to refuse to analyze these effects despite the new information. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, federal agencies must consider alternatives to the proposed action and analyze missing and incomplete information, including obtaining information essential to choosing among alternatives. Based on this statutory requirement, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management should have considered the alternative of excluding the leases within the ecologically-sensitive Hanna Shoal area, and utilized new climate information to adequately inform its decision to approve all leases within Lease Sale 193.