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The Chukchi Sea is home to animals like this walrus, as well as polar bears and the bowhead whale.  (Photo: Ryan Kingsbery, USGS/flickr/cc)

'Unconscionable': New Federal Analysis Paves Way for Arctic Plunder

New environmental impact statement shows Interior Department willing "to cater to Shell’s drilling wishes," says environmental group.

Andrea Germanos

The federal government on Thursday issued an updated assessment on fossil fuel activity in the Chukchi Sea that conservation groups fear paves the way for an Arctic disaster.

In January of 2013, conservationists claimed a "victory for the Arctic" when a federal appeals court ruled in favor of groups who had challenged the U.S. government's opening in 2008 of millions of acres in the Chukchi Sea to oil companies, called Lease Sale 193. The court found that the Bush administration hadn't adequately assessed environmental impacts of the sale.

In response to that court order, the Department of the Interior just issued its Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (FSEIS) for the sale.

The FSEIS states that it is based on a scenario involving exploration and development of 4.3 billion barrels of oil and 2.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The "preferred alternative" stated in the assessment is allowing for leasing of 29.4 million acres in the area, which "would result in affirming the lease sale and all of the leases" offered in 2008.

Such a decision would welcomed by Shell, which indicated this summer that it was renewing its effort to search for Arctic oil.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a statement, "The updated analysis is a major step toward resolving the 2008 oil and gas leases that have been tied up in the courts for years." She called Alaska “a critical component of our nation’s energy portfolio."

But, according to Michael LeVine, Pacific Senior Counsel for ocean conservation group Oceana, "The decision to hold Lease Sale 193 was poorly planned and poorly justified in 2008, and the renewed commitment to the sale is no better."

Erik Grafe, Staff Attorney with the environmental organization Earthjustice, added that the FEIS showed clear risks to the Arctic ecosystem, indicating that the Interior Department was willing "to cater to Shell’s drilling wishes."

"There is no such thing as safe or responsible drilling in the Arctic Ocean."
—Marissa Knodel, Friends of the Earth
"Today’s impact statement confirms again that drilling in the Chukchi Sea puts Arctic people and wildlife at risk from major oil spills," Grafe stated. "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 for oil in the Arctic Ocean also would exacerbate climate change, adding climate insult to climate injury."

Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Marissa Knodel echoed those concerns, saying approval of the lease sale would be "a recipe for disaster." She pointed to "Shell’s record of recklessness," referring to a series of mishaps to hit the oil giant in 2012 in its exploration activities in the Chukchi Sea.

"The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is shamefully ignoring the catastrophic impacts of opening the Chukchi Sea to oil and gas drilling," her statement continued. "The agency took less than two months to consider hundreds of thousands of public comments submitted last December. The result is a flawed analysis that relies on outdated data and fails to asses the climate impacts of producing oil from the lease.

"It is unconscionable that the federal government is willing to risk the health and safety of the people and wildlife that live near and within the Chukchi Sea for Shell’s profits. There is no such thing as safe or responsible drilling in the Arctic Ocean," Knodel stated.

The decision on whether the drilling will be allowed is not yet final. Secretary Jewell may issue a decision next month.  For now, the suspension on the leases issued in 2014 remains in place.

"Ultimately," added Oceana's LeVine, "if the government were to fully and fairly evaluate the risks and benefits, it would decide to not offer leases now in the Chukchi Sea."

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