NYT: Obama administration to allow drilling off Atlantic coast, ban it in Arctic seas

The New York Times, in an online article that appeared Monday evening, reports that the Obama administration will announce Tuesday a decision to allow oil exploration on the Atlantic coast while forbidding it in areas of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off Alaska.

Areas along the Eastern seaboard that would be affected by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management decision would be between Virginia and Georgia.

No oil exploration has occurred off the country’s Atlantic coast since the early 1980s. However, political pressure to resume the practice has grown in recent years. In March 2010 President Barack Obama said that he favored drilling off the East coast states shorelines, but in the aftermath of that year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill along the Gulf coast, the Department of Interior decided to hold off issuing any leases until at least 2017.

A Dec. 2014 study by BOEM concluded that the mean quantity of oil beneath the Atlantic waves and under the continental shelf could be as much as 4.72 billion barrels. The amount exploitable between Virginia and Georgia would likely be as much as about 3 billion barrels, according to the agency. BOEM also found that the area along the coast that encompasses Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia may also hide about 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The decision on Arctic drilling would follow the announcement Sunday by President Barack Obama that he will ask Congress to designate more than 12 million additional acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. That designation, if approved by Congress, would included the refuge’s coastal plain.

About 7 million acres of the 54-plus year old Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was preserved from most forms of natural resource exploitation in 1980.

Obama’s effort to nearly triple the wilderness acreage in the Mollie Beattie Wilderness would, if successful, create the largest single component of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

 

Federal appeals court rejects U.S. plan for oil drilling in Chukchi Sea

The Obama administration’s plan to extract billions of barrels of oil from Arctic seas off the northwest coast of Alaska hit a roadblock in federal court last week.

The federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled Jan. 22 that the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulations, and Enforcement’s ‘s environmental impact study was flawed because it assumed a production level far lower than the potential oil production from the project.

The case centers on a lease sale advanced by the administration of President George W. Bush. Called Lease Sale 193, the 2008 decision affects about 30 million acres of the marine region, an area larger than Pennsylvania.

The sale of 487 exploration leases in Lease Sale 193 produced more than $2.6 billion in revenue for Washington, with about $2.1 billion of that coming from Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world’s largest energy companies.

Opponents of the BOEM plan to allow drilling in the area point to the risks it poses to the region’s diverse wildlife.

“The melting Chukchi Sea is no place for drillships,” Rebecca Noblin, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Alaska director, said in a statement. “It’s a place where polar bears hunt for ringed seals, where walruses socialize and bowhead whales make their way to rich feeding grounds.”

The opponents, who include 12 conservation groups, one native Alaskan advocacy organization, and one native Alaskan village, argued that, by underestimating the amount of oil that could be extracted from the area if drilling occurred, BOEM was risking a huge oil spill that would devastate that pristine area.

“This mistake means that the EIS gives only the best case scenario for environmental harm,” Eric Grafe, an attorney with the public interest law firm Earthjustice, said. “All is based on the number of barrels produced. If they get the number wrong, they understate all those other impacts.”

Grafe said that, even if only 1 billion barrels of oil were produced in the area that is subject to the oil lease sale, there would be a 40 percent chance of an oil spill.

“Because it’s so remote and so inaccessible, the assumption is that you’d have to find a significant amount of oil to justify the infrastructure that would have to be put in,” he said. “Right now there’s nothing. No roads, no pipelines. It’s a pristine area. It’s precisely because of that absence of infrastructure that it’s so risky to drill there. If there is an oil spill, you’re not going to have the resources to respond to that oil spill and you can’t clean it up in an icy environment anyway.”

The federal appeals court panel that heard the case agreed that the government’s reliance upon an estimate of 1 billion barrels of oil caused its study of environmental impacts from the drilling activity  to be flawed.

“In the case before us, BOEM was fully aware from the very beginning that if one billion barrels could be economically produced, many more barrels could also be economically produced,” Judge William Fletcher, the lead author of the appellate panel’s opinion, wrote.

There may be as many as 15 billion barrels of oil that are economically viable to extract beneath the Chukchi Sea, according to 1 2011 BOEM analysis.

Environmentalists also point to the contribution to ongoing climate change that extracted oil would make.

“We can’t afford to burn the oil found there,” Grafe said. “We shouldn’t be getting more oil out to burn it if we are going to stay within climate change parameters.”

Shell commenced drilling in the Chukchi Sea in 2012 but experienced numerous problems. A  March 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Interior concluded that Shell committed a series of logistical and planning blunders in connection with its Lease Sale 193-related activities in the Arctic.

“They screwed it up really badly,” Grafe said. “Here’s a company saying ‘we’re ready to drill, we can do it safely’ and it’s a giant fiasco. Nothing goes right.”

Among those problems:

* a containment dome used to prevent the spread of oil spills that was being tested in Puget Sound was “crushed like a beer can,” according to a U.S. Department of Interior official who observed the test;

* a drill ship called the Noble Discoverer slipped anchor and nearly ran aground in Dutch Harbor, AK, then had to quickly be moved from Shell’s exploration site in the Chukchi Sea because an ice storm was rapidly approaching;

* U.S. Coast Guard inspectors found a litany of maritime regulation violations on the vessel and later referred its findings to the U.S. Department of Justice;

* the Noble Discoverer later caught fire and exploded while in port in the Aleutian Islands; and

* another drilling ship, the Kulluck, broke free of a tow and ran aground in Kodiak, AK in Dec. 2012. Shell was trying to move the ship to Seattle to avoid paying Alaska property taxes on vessels used for oil and gas exploration.

“Doing that in the winter when there’s lots of storms in the Gulf of Alaska is risky,” Grafe said. “But they did it.”

The incident involving the Kulluck drill barge remains under investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 the U.S. Department of Interior has authority over oil and gas exploration and extraction on submerged lands along the country’s coasts. That cabinet department, in turn, includes a specialized agency – BOEM – to handle leasing of the submerged lands for oil and gas development activity. BOEM used to be known as the Minerals Management Service. The Obama administration changed its name in 2010, following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Chukchi Sea lease sale dispute will now go back before a U.S. district judge in Alaska. He will decide whether the holders of oil leases in the Chukchi Sea can proceed to drill after a modified environmental impact statement is prepared or whether the lease sales should be voided altogether.

Judge Ralph Beistline had previously rejected BOEM’s environmental impact statement in a 2010 decision. Later, after the Obama administration made changes to the EIS and proceeded with Lease Sale 193, Beistline upheld that decision. It was that 2011 order that was reversed by the Ninth Circuit last week.

Grafe said that the appeals court’s opinion gives BOEM time to decide whether to abandon the Chukchi Sea leases.

“They could put out a draft EIS and, while they’re doing that process to get a more accurate assessment, not allow any activities to happen on those leases,” he explained. “At the end of that EIS process, when we have a document that more accurately informs the public about the risks, they can reconsider the decision about whether the leases should be there.”

Grafe was referring to an environmental impact statement, which is the study of the environmental impacts likely to result from a “major federal action,” such as marine oil leases, mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

Shell announced this week that it would not attempt to drill in the Chukchi or Beaufort Seas this year.

The case is Native Village of Point Hope v. Jewell, No. 12-35287.

Chukchi Sea ice - photo courtesy NOAA - photo by Karen E. Frey Beluga whale pod in Chukchi sea - photo courtesy NOAA, photo by Laura Morse Walruses in the Chukchi Sea - photo courtesy USGS

Kulluck aground - photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard, photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg

Top photo: Ice on Chukchi Sea (photo courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, photo by Karen E. Frey)

Second photo: Beluga whale pod in Chukchi Sea (photo courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, photo by Laura Morse)

Third photo: Walrus in Chukchi Sea (photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)

Fourth photo: The drill ship Kulluck aground in Kodiak, AK, Jan. 1, 2013 (photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard, photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg)

DC Circuit upholds polar bear listing under ESA

A federal appeals court ruled last week that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service properly listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The court rejected a challenge by the state of Alaska and extractive industry interests to a 2008 decision by the George W. Bush administration.

Environmental conservation advocates welcomed the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Climate change, habitat degradation and pollution already have polar bears on thin ice. Trophy hunting only exacerbates an already dire situation,” Jeff Flocken, a spokesperson for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said in a statement. “Today’s decision to keep the status of the polar bear as threatened is an important step in the fight to safeguard the species against trophy hunting.” 

Federal administrative law gives judges little room to second-guess scientific determinations by agencies.

The scientific basis for listing the polar bear as a threatened species is that the species requires Arctic Ocean sea ice for habitat, that the quantity of that ice during the summer months is being reduced as the planet’s atmosphere and oceans warm, and that the loss of seasonal sea ice could result a risk that the polar bear will go extinct.

The litigants did not argue that these scientific predicates for the listing decision are incorrect. Instead, the legal arguments essentially amounted to claims that FWS did not correctly conclude that the undisputed scientific facts should lead to a listing decision, or a listing of all polar bear populations; that FWS did not give enough weight to other programs to conserve the species; and that, in any case, the agency did not provide a sufficient explanation for its actions.

The polar bear was added to the federal list of threatened and endangered species after more than three years of evaluation prompted by a Feb. 2005 listing petition.

The District of Columbia Circuit’s resolution of the legal fight over whether the polar bear was properly listed as a threatened species does not end all ESA litigation relating to the species. A federal district court recently held that FWS erred in its designation of critical habitat for the polar bear.

Alaska federal court throws out polar bear critical habitat rule

A federal judge in Alaska has rejected a regulation that designated critical habitat for the polar bear.

According to a Jan. 11 article by Associated Press reporter Becky Bohrer:

U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline, in a written order dated Thursday, said the designation was too extensive and presented “a disconnect between the twin goals of protecting a cherished resource and allowing for growth and much needed economic development.” He sent the matter back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to correct “substantive and procedural deficiencies.”

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service set aside critical habitat for the polar bear in December 2010. The amount of critical habitat – about 187,000 square miles – is larger than California. However, that is only a small portion of Alaska, which encompasses more than 586,000 square miles.

Critical habitat is designated pursuant to section 4 of the Endangered Species Act. It is limited to areas that are occupied by a species when it is designated as threatened or endangered and that contains “physical or biological features essential to conservation” of the species which require special protection or areas outside the area occupied by the species at the time of listing that are “essential for conservation.”

A critical habitat designation has no impact on purely private economic activities. Instead, it is relevant only when an activity that might affect a listed species or its habitat occurs on federal property or involves in some way the expenditure of funds from the U.S. treasury.

Ursus maritimus was added to the list of threatened and endangered species in May 2008. Polar bears are threatened because their seasonal ice floe habitat is disappearing as Earth’s climate warms.


Photo of polar bear courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, photo by Terry Debruhn.





Alaska to mount legal challenge to Endangered Species Act

Alaska’s legislature is considering a request by the state’s attorney general to appropriate $1 million for a lawyer to mount a challenge to the Endangered Species Act.

That’s according to a report in the Juneau Empire today.

Alaska officials have repeatedly complained about the application of the ESA within their state, most recently in connection with the polar bear.

The state has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior, arguing that the listing of that species as threatened is not justified.