Big Win for Arctic Wildlife

U.S. court rejects offshore oil leases in Arctic waters.

On January 22, 2014 the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted at least a temporary reprieve for species already stressed by global warming such as polar bears, walruses, ringed seals, bowhead whales, beluga whales, spectacled eiders, king eiders, yellow-billed loons, red-throated loons, and Pacific black brant, to mention just a few.  

In a ruling, hailed by wildlife advocates as a major victory, the court determined that the U.S. Department of Interior had unlawfully sold offshore oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast because in its environmental review it had grossly underestimated the amount of recoverable oil (and therefore the danger). The court described the low estimate as "not justified," "chosen arbitrarily" and based on "inadequate information."

This decision, which reverses a 2012 lower court finding in a case brought by a coalition of conservation and native groups, means the agency will have to somehow supplement or revise its environmental review.

"We don't know nearly enough about the Chukchi Sea ecosystems—let alone about how to clean up an oil spill in ice-locked seas—to let international corporations go around poking holes in the seafloor," declared David Yarnold, president and CEO of Audubon, one of the plaintiffs. "We do know that the Arctic Ocean is crucial for marine birds and mammals, holding globally significant feeding and resting areas for dozens of species, and they need to be protected."

What's more, the staging area for offshore oil operations—Barrow, a village of 4,300 and America's northernmost community—is hideously inadequate. The closest thing it has to a dock is a nonfunctional boat-launching ramp, now a pile of submerged rubble. The nearest Coast Guard strike team (trained in pollution response) is 2,595 miles away, in Novato, California. The airport has only one runway and a Coast Guard helicopter hangar that's sinking into permafrost.

Over the last two years the spectacular failures of the major player, Royal Dutch Shell, "clearly demonstrate [that] companies are not ready to drill in the Arctic Ocean," noted the plaintiffs in a joint statement. In attempting to prove otherwise, Shell produced a tragicomedy of errors that left the world, including the sympathetic and forgiving Interior Department, shocked and appalled.

In July 2012 Shell lost control of its drill ship, Noble Discoverer, when it broke free from its mooring and nearly fetched up on Aleutian rocks. Following that, an onboard fire broke out; and the Coast Guard cited the ship for nearly two dozen safety and pollution problems.

In August 2012 Shell's dilapidated oil-spill response barge, the Arctic Challenger, flunked Coast Guard certification because it had wiring and piping issues and was fire prone.

Interior's approval of Shell's request for offshore oil exploration was contingent on the company demonstrating that it could, among other things, cap a blowout and clean a spill in dark, wave-whipped or ice-bound seas—i.e., normal Arctic conditions. Accordingly, in September 2012 the somewhat patched up Challenger lowered a capping device into a flat-calm Puget Sound whereupon, to quote Interior's onboard observer Mark Fesmire, it buckled "like a beer can."

Then, on January 1, 2013, Shell's 266-foot-diameter floating drill rig, Kulluk, loaded with 155,000 gallons of toxic petroleum products, broke loose from its towline and ran aground at a globally significant Important Bird Area off Kodiak Island. When Shell's "super tug" Aiviq attempted to reconnect to the Kulluk it suffered multiple engine failures. So severe was damage to the Kulluk that it had to be hauled to Singapore for repairs.

Given these stunning SNAFUs, it seems unlikely that Shell or, for that matter, any company can develop technology to safely extract oil from the bed of the Chukchi Sea before Interior fixes its legally deficient environmental review.

Still, the recent court decision provides a significant window for public activism and, as the plaintiffs observe, for the Obama administration to "take seriously its obligation to re-think whether to allow risky industrial activities in the Chukchi Sea."