World Wildlife Fund's long campaign to protect Alaska's Arctic seas and coastlines from oil and gas development won a major victory last night when a federal court put a hold on recent leases that would have opened up the Chukchi Sea to new drilling.
In siding with the plaintiffs challenging "Lease Sale 193" -- a group consisting of native Alaskan and conservation organizations, including WWF -- the Federal District Court of Alaska ruled that the Minerals Management Service (MMS) failed to conduct proper environmental reviews and therefore enjoined all activity under the leases in question. The court directed the agency to consider impacts of gas development and to address the question of whether missing information about the environment in the Chukchi is essential for proper decision making and how that information might be gathered.
"This ruling is a tremendous victory not only for WWF but also the species and communities along Alaska's North Slope that would be threatened by oil and gas development," said Bill Eichbaum, WWF's Vice President for Marine and Arctic Policy. "Drilling in harsh Arctic waters is very different from drilling in the mild, temperate conditions of, say, the Gulf of Mexico. There is virtually no response capability in the Arctic, no way to adequately respond to and clean up a spill.
"Given these severe risks, thorough environmental impact reviews are absolutely critical. Yet MMS, consistent with its track record of corruption and mismanagement, completely failed in that regard. It is abundantly clear, based on this instance as well as the many past examples of MMS failing to fulfill its management and enforcement duties, that the previous decisions of this broken agency cannot be viewed with any degree of confidence. Therefore, Lease Sale 193 should be revoked and the leasing process should start over under the new, reorganized agency only on the basis of good science."
MMS, a division of the Department of the Interior, was recently split up and reorganized to help eliminate conflicts of interest and address the agency's troubled history of mismanagement and corruption. The entity now responsible for offshore lease sales is known as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
The July 21 court ruling follows a string of recent victories for WWF's Arctic campaign. Earlier this year, the Obama administration granted protection from drilling to Alaska's Bristol Bay, nursery to roughly 40 percent of America's seafood catch, and announced that no new areas within the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, apart from Lease Sale 193, would be opened to drilling. And following the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the President placed a moratorium on new oil and gas exploration drilling that was set to begin off Alaska's North Slope as soon as July 1.
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