In a “victory for the Arctic,” a federal appeals court Wednesday ruled in favor of a coalition of native and environmental groups who had challenged the U.S. government’s opening of millions of acres in the Chukchi Sea to oil and gas development.
The ruling deals a blow to oil giant Shell’s Arctic drilling plans.
In its ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit found that the estimate for assessing potential environmental effects of the oil leases made by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) of the Department of the Interior saying that just one billion barrels of oil will be economically recoverable from the remote area was “arbitrary and capricious.”
The decision centers on Lease Sale 193, which happened under the Bush administration in 2008, and opened for oil drilling the Chukchi Sea, located off the northwest coast of Alaska, home to native communities and iconic species like polar bears, walruses and whales.
The court’s opinion adds that:
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The plaintiffs, which include the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Oceana, cheered the ruling as a win for the native communities and the remote ecosystem, which is already heavily impacted by ongoing climate change. In a joint statement, the groups said:
While the ruling represents a positive step, the groups urge President Obama to permanently protect the Arctic from risky drilling. The joint statement adds:
In February last year, Shell announced it was suspending its 2013 Arctic drilling program following a mishap-laden year in which its “ships have caught fire, run aground, lost control and become the subject of criminal investigation,” yet the company renewed its bid for Arctic drilling months later.
“Drilling in the Arctic is a doubly bad decision,” said Dan Ritzman, Sierra Club Alaska program director, in a statement issued Wednesday. “Not only does it threaten this harsh yet delicate place with permanent damage from an oil spill, it also creates a cycle that worsens climate change—generating carbon pollution that heats the planet while also melting the ice that helps keep it cool.”
Echoing Ritzman’s concerns, Cindy Shogan, executive director of Alaska Wilderness League, added that, “Rather than risking a Deepwater Horizon-like disaster in the Arctic by Shell Oil or other leaseholders, the Obama administration should recognize the unique challenges of drilling in the Arctic, including the risks associated with climate change, the lack of scientific data and knowledge about the Arctic, as well as the lack of technology and means to clean up a spill in its often harsh and chaotic conditions. For all of these reasons we should leave the Chukchi Sea free of oil rigs.”
The case now heads back to U.S. District Judge Ralph R. Beistline, who could thwart Shell’s drilling plans.