ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A federal appeals court Wednesday ruled in favor of environmental groups that claimed the federal government conducted a flawed environmental review before selling $2.7 billion in petroleum leases off Alaska's northwest coast in 2008.
A three-member panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a split decision that the Minerals Management Service, now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, prepared an environmental assessment for a sale in the Chukchi Sea based on minimal development — just 1 billion barrels of oil.
Environmental groups said that was too low and that drilling and development was likely to be far more widespread in petroleum-rich Arctic Ocean underwater deposits.
The panel ordered the case back to federal District Court, where a trial judge could order the correction of the environmental review.
The lawsuit was filed by 15 environmental or Alaska Native groups, who called for an immediate suspension of drilling until a more adequate assessment is completed on drilling's possible effects on polar bears, walrus, ice seals, endangered whales and coastlines used by Alaska Native subsistence hunters.
"President Obama now has the chance to do right by the Arctic and the planet by keeping oil drilling out of the Chukchi Sea," said Earthjustice attorney Eric Grafe, who represented the groups, in a prepared statement. "It makes no sense to open up the fragile, irreplaceable, and already melting Arctic Ocean to risky drilling for dirty oil that will only exacerbate climate change already wreaking havoc on the Arctic and elsewhere.
Royal Dutch Shell PLC was the leading bidder in 2008. The company spent $2.1 billion on Chukchi leases and has spent upward of $5 billion on Arctic offshore development.