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Victory for the Arctic Ocean!

Victory! Shell Oil Company announces that it is backing out of drilling in the Arctic Ocean for 2014! And Northern Center has major legal victory with Native Village of Point Hope and other Native and conservation allies over Chukchi Sea leasing.

Victory for the Arctic Ocean!

Walrus and pup (USGS)

Royal Dutch Shell announced it has halted plans to drill in Alaska’s Arctic Ocean in 2014. 

As Shell’s problems have clearly demonstrated, companies are not ready to drill in the Arctic Ocean.  In 2012, Shell’s debacle from oil spill equipment failures, environmental violations, grounding of the Kulluk rig, to an engine fire in its Discoverer drill ship led to the company cancel its drilling plans in 2013. 

Days before, the Northern Center had a major legal victory The Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the Department of the Interior violated the law when it sold offshore oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea because it did not fully consider environmental risks. 

The Northern Center had joined with Native Village of Point Hope, Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, and a coalition of other Alaska Native and conservation groups in legal challenges mounted just before the Bush Administration’s rushed Chukchi Sea sale in 2008. 

This ruling is a victory for the Arctic Ocean! The area is home to species such as polar bear, bowhead whales, and walrus and to a vibrant indigenous subsistence culture. Drilling for oil puts at risk the region’s wildlife and people, and it takes us off the path toward a clean energy future.  There is no proven oil spill response in the Chukchi Sea, and currently no oil and gas development here. 

For the second time, a court has found that the government ignored basic legal protections for our ocean resources in deciding to open the Chukchi Sea to offshore oil leasing. The Obama administration must now take seriously its obligation to re-think whether to allow risky industrial activities in the Chukchi Sea. 

BACKGROUND 

The Northern Center has played a key role in calling for comprehensive baseline environmental information and proven oil spill response prior to new lease sales and drilling that propel major new industrialization of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.  

The Chukchi Sea lease sale, Sale 193, was originally held in 2008 in the last year of the Bush administration. It offered nearly 30 million acres in the Chukchi Sea for oil drilling—an area larger than the size of Pennsylvania.  Prior to the lease sale, there were no active oil leases in the sea, and we joined in the case Native Village of Point Hope v Sec. Kempthorne / Salazar. 

In 2010 The Federal District Court in Alaska determined that the original lease sale violated the National Environmental Protection Act, one of the foundations of U.S. environmental law, because the Department of Interior had failed to address the widely recognized gaps in what is known about nearly every species in the Chukchi Sea.  It required the agency to reconsider the decision which resulted in a supplemental environmental Impact Statement, but this still did not address fundamental deficiencies. 

In January 2014, the Court agreed with the groups that the Department of Interior failed adequately to analyze the potentially dramatic environmental effects of the sale before offering the leases.  It determined that the agency had analyzed “only the best case scenario for environmental harm, assuming oil development,” and that this analysis “skews the data toward fewer environmental impacts, and thus impedes a full and fair discussion of the potential effects of the project.”  The agency will have to revise or supplement its analysis for the lease sale once again and must reconsider its lease sale decision. 

The Chukchi Sea is part of America’s Arctic Ocean north of Alaska.  It is home to concentrations of marine mammals like polar bears, walrus, beluga whales, bowhead whales, and seals.  It is also home to vibrant Alaska Native communities that have depended for millennia on the ocean for their subsistence way of life.  The region is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, putting tremendous strain on its wildlife and people.  The Chukchi Sea and its coast are remote—the coast contains only four small communities that are not connected to a road system, lack deep-water harbors, and can only be reached by plane or, in summer, by boat.  The region is hundreds of miles from the nearest coast-guard station and lacks rescue and oil spill response capability.

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