Gov't issues new review for Chukchi Sea oil leases

The federal government released a revised environmental review Friday for petroleum leases in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast, but environmentalists said it still contains critical ...

The federal government released a revised environmental review Friday for petroleum leases in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast, but environmentalists said it still contains critical gaps.

The revised draft environmental review by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement responds to a federal judge's ruling that the government failed to follow environmental law before it sold the leases.

The review is "woefully incomplete," said Erik Grafe, a spokesman for Earthjustice, which represented 15 Alaska Native and environmental groups in a lawsuit that led to the July 2010 ruling. "It still concludes that the agency does not have to gather one single piece of the literally hundreds of instances of missing information about bowheads, fish, walrus, birds and other species in the Chukchi Sea before deciding whether to commit the area to oil drilling leases."

The 2008 sale sold leases on more than 4,300 square miles of Arctic Ocean waters for nearly $2.7 billion, including $2.1 billion in high bids by Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc.

Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith did not immediately return calls for comment. Shell hopes to drill next year in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

In last year's decision, U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline said that the Minerals Management Service, as the agency was formerly known, failed to analyze the environmental effect of natural gas development despite industry interest and specific lease incentives for such development. The agency analyzed development of only the first field of 1 billion barrels of oil even though it acknowledged that was the minimum level of development that could occur on the leases.

Beistline enjoined all activity under the lease sale pending further review, ordering the agency to analyze the environmental impact of natural gas development and determine whether missing information was essential.

The ocean management bureau said it will take public comments on the draft May 27 through July 11.

Agency director Michael Bromwich said the revised document offers additional environmental, scientific and technical analysis.

"Because of what is at stake, it is extremely important that we continue to make this a transparent process that encourages the maximum amount of public participation," Bromwich said in a statement.

The draft lacks important data, environmentalists said. For example, it does not incorporate a report soon to be published by the U.S. Geological Survey that identifies missing information about the Arctic Ocean. Also, the analysis says it has not been possible to predict the impact on marine mammals from disturbances caused by development, yet it states that "sufficient information is available to support sound scientific judgments and reasoned managerial decisions at the lease sale stage."

Environmental and Alaska Native groups have long contended it would be impossible to clean up a spill in Arctic waters, especially during periods of broken ice. The nearest Coast Guard base is on Kodiak Island more than 1,000 miles away. The review includes an analysis of a large hypothetical oil spill that shows the potential for environmental disaster.

"Before it considers any drilling in the Arctic Ocean — like that which Shell is proposing — BOEMRE must insist on adequate oil spill plans and the development of technology that can clean up oil in the icy, stormy, and remote waters of the Arctic Ocean," Grafe said.

As it is, the revision "makes a mockery of the environmental review process," said attorney Rebecca Noblin of the Center for Biological Diversity.

"BOEMRE's rushed 'environmental review' appears to be no more than a hasty rationalization of a decision already made," she said. "The agency should go back to the drawing board on this one."

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