U.S. DOI opens doors for Arctic drilling

The U.S. Department of the Interior yesterday issued a Record of Decision affirming Chukchi Sea OCS Oil and Gas Lease Sale 193 and the remaining oil and gas leases issued in 2008 as a result of the sale.

“The Arctic is an important component of the Administration’s national energy strategy, and we remain committed to taking a thoughtful and balanced approach to oil and gas leasing and exploration offshore Alaska,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “This unique, sensitive and often challenging environment requires effective oversight to ensure all activities are conducted safely and responsibly.”

Upon issuance of the Record of Decision, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management BOEM may begin formal review of a company’s exploration plan for the Chukchi Sea, which includes public engagement and additional environmental analyses. BOEM, BSEE and other Federal agencies will need to review and approve activities before any exploration activity can occur, DOI said in a statement.

Legal challenges

The original Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Lease Sale 193 was published in 2007 but subsequent legal challenges and Federal court decisions remanded the lease sale back to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) for further analysis. The most recent court decision, from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, specifically addressed BOEM’s estimates of production levels from OCS oil fields that might be discovered in the Chukchi Sea.

In response to the court remand, BOEM conducted additional analysis to estimate the highest amount of production that could reasonably result from Lease Sale 193 and incorporated that information into a Supplemental EIS (SEIS) that was published in February 2015. The Department issued yesterday’s decision after studying the information compiled in the SEIS and analyzing all comments received.

“Working closely with our partner agencies at the Federal, state and local levels, our analysts brought to bear the best science available to produce a careful and robust analysis,” said Janice Schneider, Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management, who signed the Record of Decision.

Upon the Ninth Circuit court remand in January 2014, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement suspended all leases issued via Lease Sale 193. With today’s decision these suspensions are lifted.

“I am very grateful for the work that BOEM professionals put into this extensive analysis, and for the input we received from our stakeholders throughout the entire process,” said BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper.

 Environmentalists slam the decision

Earth Justice, a non-profit public interest law organization based in the United States dedicated to environmental issues, has slammed the decision, saying the DOI acted in haste, catering to “Shell Oil’s desire to drill as early as this summer.”

“Interior should not compound today’s misstep by rushing to approve Shell’s plans to drill this summer, which can only now be formally reviewed by the department. Shell’s planned drilling is even bigger, dirtier, and louder than in 2012, calling for more sound disturbances and harassment of whales and seals, than the company’s previous plans and does not address adequately the company’s failed efforts to drill in 2012.  Interior should take additional time to evaluate Shell’s drilling plans,” the organization said in a statement.

“We are disappointed in Interior’s rushed lease sale decision,” said Erik Grafe, Earthjustice staff attorney. “Interior still has time to make a better decision when evaluating Shell’s drilling plan, and we sincerely hope it says no to Shell’s louder, bigger, and dirtier tactics, loaded with potential environmental harm. The region is suffering dramatically under climate stress, and drilling will only further stress the region’s wildlife and people and ultimately worsen climate change. The Arctic Ocean’s fossil fuels must remain in the ground if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change.”

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