BOEM Assessment Suggests Shell’s Chukchi Leases Remain Intact

Federal regulators are suggesting that Shell’s disputed oil leases in the Chukchi Sea be left intact.

Download Audio

That’s the conclusion of a new assessment of Lease Sale 193 — the auction where Shell and other companies spent more than $2 billion on Arctic drilling prospects. 

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management released its final analysis today, almost a year after a federal appeals court ordered them to double-check how much development the sale would trigger in the Chukchi.

Shell wants to use its Noble Discoverer drill rig to explore the Chukchi Sea this summer. (KUCB)
Shell wants to use its Noble Discoverer drill rig to explore the Chukchi Sea this summer. (KUCB)

Regulators had previously guessed that 1 billion barrels of oil would be drilled on lease sites. But after a lawsuit from environmental groups and tribal governments along the coast, Judge Ralph Beistline ruled that was an arbitrary figure — and it cast doubt on the government’s justification for the sale.

Now, BOEM has revised its estimate, saying that oil companies could get more than 4 billion barrels out of the Chukchi. But that hasn’t shifted BOEM’s opinion about the scope of the sale.

“The analysts did not find anything to change that recommendation,” says spokesman John Callahan, “which we feel best represents striking that balance between protecting this unique environment and opening some of the area up for development.”

Federal officials traveled around the state this winter, holding public meetings on the new study. BOEM accepted comments on a draft version for over a month.

But Leah Donahey of the Alaska Wilderness League says that timeline feels fast. The public comment period didn’t close until late December.

“And here we are, less than two months later. And with over than half a million comments going in, they’ve already come out with the final EIS on this,” Donahey says. “So we think it’s very rushed. And there are many aspects of the EIS that they redid that we don’t feel is adequate.”

This isn’t the first time that BOEM has had to go back and re-check the sale. Judge Beistline made a similar order for extra studies five years ago. Once they were complete, the judge allowed Shell to go on and explore its leases in the Chukchi.

That kind of activity is off-limits for now. First, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has to issue a final record of decision on whether to uphold the sale, adjust its parameters, or strike it down altogether.

Jewell is required to wait 30 days before releasing that decision. The waiting period ends March 25.

APRN’s Liz Ruskin contributed to this report.