(CN) - A federal appeals court in San Francisco vacated the Bush administration's approval of a plan for offshore drilling in Alaska's Beaufort Sea, ordering the government to take a "hard look" at the drilling's impact on the region's people and wildlife.
The 9th Circuit remanded, telling Minerals Management Service to take a closer look at the environmental impact of Shell Offshore Inc.'s plan to drill up to 12 exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea over the next three years.
During the 30-day approval process, several agency experts said the drilling could significantly harm bowhead whales, polar bears and the Inupiat Eskimos' whale hunts.
But the agency brushed off the concerns, concluding that the drilling "would not significantly affect the quality of the human environment" or "cause 'undue or serious harm or damage to the human, marine or coastal environment.'"
The Alaska Wilderness League, the National Resources Defense Council, Pacific Environment and other environmental groups petitioned the 9th Circuit for review. Other parties later joined the fray, including Shell Oil and a network of Alaska natives.
The court consolidated the cases and stayed the agency's decision until the three-judge panel had a chance to review the merits.
The judges noted that the Beaufort Sea hosts a wide range of fish, bird and mammal species, including the endangered bowhead whale. The Western Arctic stock of bowhead whales migrate twice a year, passing through Alaska's Beaufort Sea on both legs of the journey.
The whales are extremely sensitive to noise generated by icebreakers and drill ships. High levels of noise can cause temporary or permanent hearing damage, and even low levels can affect the whales' migratory patterns. Offshore drilling also interferes with native Alaskans' annual whale hunts, which they rely on for survival.
These and other considerations are significant enough to trigger the "hard look" requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act, the 2-1 majority ruled.
"MMS has not provided a convincing statement of reasons explaining why Shell's exploratory drilling plans at these specific sites would have an insignificant impact on bowhead whales and Inupiat subsistence activities," Judge Nelson wrote. "As a result, we are unpersuaded that MMS took the requisite 'hard look' at the environmental impact of this project."
The agency's attempt to rely on past studies and a whale-monitoring program were "similarly ill-founded," the court added.
The majority judges vacated approval of the offshore drilling plan and ordered the government to closely examine the drilling's impact on Inupiat whale hunts, and on the location of the wells in relation to whale migratory patterns.
But the court backed the agency's assumption that there wouldn't be an oil spill, saying the government was under no obligation to analyze those risks.
In dissent, Judge Carlos Bea said the court lacked the authority to overturn the agency's decision, because its conclusion wasn't arbitrary or capricious.
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