Federal Judge Halts Offshore Gas and Oil Activity in Chukchi

Lori Townsend and Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Federal district judge Beistline today halted activity on offshore oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea. Lease Sale 193 was conducted in 2008 and garnered $2.7 billion during the sale. Anchorage Judge Ralph Beistline found the Minerals Management Service had violated the National Environmental Policy Act in two areas. Under NEPA regulations MMS should have determined what potential environmental impact information was missing that was important to their decision making and whether they could obtain that information. Erik Grafe is an attorney with Earth Justice, the law firm that represented 15 environmental and Native organizations in the lease challenge. He says MMS did not comply with those requirements.

Grafe says MMS would have to show that the cost or time involved with obtaining the missing information would be exorbitant in order to be released from the requirement.

Beistline also found that MMS had failed to analyze the potential impacts from natural gas exploration and development on the leases.

Grafe says no activity can happen on the leases until the agency analyzes what is missing if they can get it and if not, justify why not to the judge. The major lease holders are Shell and ConocoPhillips, others include Stat Oil, ENI and Repsol. Shell was the highest bidder on the leases at $2.1 billion.

Caroline Cannon is President of the Native village of Point Hope – a plaintiff in the lawsuit. She says the lease sale happened too quickly, without input from local communities. Her reaction to the decision has been an emotional one.

A spokesman for the Minerals Management Service, now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says the agency is reviewing the judge’s decision and won’t have a comment at this time. Shell didn’t not return calls in time for this story. It’s not yet known if the defendants will appeal.

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