Obama Administration Hopes Third Time’s A Charm For Chukchi Sea Lease Despite Major Risks

Obama Administration Hopes Third Time’s A Charm For Chukchi Sea Lease Despite Major Risks
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The US Department of the Interior released the final supplemental environmental impact statement for Chukchi Sea Lease Sale 193 yesterday, continuing to move the process of affirming the leases originally sold in 2008 forward despite acknowledging the major risks of allowing drilling in the Arctic.

The story of the US government’s attempts to sell off its stake in the Arctic Ocean to oil companies eager to exploit the oil reserves beneath the waters is a strange and sordid saga.

The Bush Administration originally leased 30 million acres of the Chukchi Sea for oil drilling in 2008 while relying on incomplete information about the local wildlife. A judge with the Federal District Court in Alaska determined the leases violated the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) in 2010.

The judge ordered the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to reconsider the leases, but a year later, the Obama Administration made the decision to let them stand and issued the first Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Chukchi Sea Lease Sale 193 in 2011.

In January of 2014, the Court Of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled once again that the leases violated the law by failing to adequately consider the potentially catastrophic effects of drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean. A new draft analysis was released by BOEM in October 2014, and this time it conceded that there was a 75% chance of one or more large oil spills (defined as more than 1,000 barrels) occurring if the leases were developed.

In response, the environmental group Earthjustice issued a statement saying, “There is no way effectively to clean up or contain an oil spill in Arctic Ocean conditions.” The group also says that millions of Americans responded to the draft analysis by calling on the Obama Administration to stop drilling in the Arctic Ocean once and for all.

Instead, BOEM released the second final supplemental environmental impact statement, marking the federal government’s third attempt to justify Chukchi Sea Lease Sale 193 even while acknowledging how disastrous oil drilling in the region could be. Environmentalists were quick to point out that the new analysis did not correct the problems identified in the initial draft.

“Today’s impact statement confirms again that drilling in the Chukchi Sea puts Arctic people and wildlife at risk from major oil spills,” Earthjustice staff attorney Erik Grafe said in a statement. “It concludes there is a 75 percent chance of one or more major oil spills if the Chukchi Sea is developed, and there is no way to clean or contain such a spill.”

Drilling in the Arctic Ocean is certainly a risky proposition—Shell’s aborted attempt in 2012 to begin exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea is proof enough of that. Some banks have even refused to finance Arctic drilling operations, saying “the risks and costs are simply too high.”

One major risk is an oil spill, of course, a threat compounded by the fact that there is no emergency response infrastructure in place and the harsh conditions make it nearly impossible to respond effectively.

But even in the best case scenario, drilling for oil in the Arctic would still end up exacerbating climate change, further threatening the already vulnerable Arctic environment that is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, which has had a dire impact on wildlife and Alaska Native communities.

“The lease sale decision is a golden opportunity for the Obama administration to show leadership by deciding to keep the Chukchi Sea off limits to drilling,” Grafe says. “But Interior’s publication of the supplemental EIS for the Chukchi Sea lease today is a step in the wrong direction. The Interior is rushing through the process to cater to Shell’s drilling wishes rather than sound decision-making about an irreplaceable region already under dramatic climate stress.”
 

Image Credit: vitstudio / Shutterstock.com

Obama Administration Hopes Third Time’s A Charm For Chukchi Sea Lease Despite Major Risks
Mike Gaworecki is a San Francisco-based journalist who writes about energy, climate, and forest issues for DeSmogBlog and Mongabay.com. His writing has appeared on BillMoyers.com, Alternet, Treehugger, Change.org, Huffington Post, and more. He is also a novelist whose debut “The Mysticist” came out via FreemadeSF in 2014.

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