Administration should proceed carefully on Outer Continental Shelf drilling

On April 17, a federal court ruling vacated a Bush-era 5-year drilling plan for the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).

The court ruling came shortly after a decision by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to put the brakes on another 5-year offshore drilling program that had been pushed through in the final days of the Bush administration.

Both plans would open areas of the Chukchi, Beaufort, and Bering Seas to oil and gas leasing, exploration and drilling. The court decision and delays suggest some progress toward restoring a more thoughtful and cautionary approach to offshore energy planning. But, Alaska’s offshore waters are far from safe.

On May 11, Salazar asked the Department of Justice for clarification about the April 17 court decision. In his brief to the court, he reiterated that the Bush 5-Year plan was illegal, but also expressed the Department of Interior’s interest in moving forward with oil and gas activity on already-issued leases in the Chukchi Sea.

It is The Wilderness Society’s position that oil and gas activity should not proceed anywhere in the Bering Sea, Chukchi Sea, and Beaufort Seas until further studies are completed. We believe that the Department of the Interior should defer all oil and gas activity until meaningful environmental analyses are conducted, and the needs of native subsistence users and other stakeholders are fully understood. Only then can we move forward with a science-driven plan.

The April 17 court decision vacated the Bush administration’s 2007-2012 OCS program on the basis that it contained an irrational analysis of the impacts of oil and gas development activities on the fragile Arctic marine ecosystems.

Now, the Interior Department and the Obama administration has an opportunity to do things right.

Specifically, The Wilderness Society together with several Alaska Native tribal governments and conservation organizations have urged the Obama administration to take a new, careful approach to energy planning for both on and offshore areas in Alaska by developing a comprehensive conservation and energy plan for the whole of America’s Arctic. This plan should be based on sound science and determine if, when, where, and how development should proceed in order to protect the environment and the cultural identity, subsistence livelihoods and cultures of Alaska Native people.

The Obama administration should defer all new oil and gas development and related activities until an Arctic Ocean comprehensive plan is completed.

In the Bering Sea and Bristol Bay — one of the most important commercial fisheries in the world — a moratorium should be reinstated on any and all leasing and drilling for oil or gas. Fishing is the cornerstone of this region’s economy and cultural traditions and it is just too precious to risk any development.