(CN) – The D.C. Circuit on Friday vacated a Bush-era plan to expand oil and gas drilling off the Alaska coast, saying the Interior Department failed to properly analyze the environmental risks of the leasing program. The court ordered the agency to prepare a more thorough assessment of oil-spill risk for areas farther offshore.
The Center for Biological Diversity, along with other environmental groups and the Native Village of Point Hope, challenged 2007 plans for oil and gas leases on the Outer Continental Shelf in Alaska’s Beaufort, Bering and Chukchi seas.
The groups claimed that noise from seismic surveying and the risk of spills threatened species such as the polar bear and Pacific walrus. The Inuit village argued that oil spill threats could hamper a subsistence lifestyle passed down for millennia.
The federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., struck down claims under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act as premature, because no drilling has occurred and no animals have been harmed.
Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Sentelle also dismissed claims that the government failed to consider how the leasing program would affect global climate change. The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act was designed to meet the nation’s energy needs and requires no such consideration, the court ruled.
However, the court agreed with environmentalists that the Interior Department’s environmental sensitivity analysis fell short by narrowly focusing on the “physical characteristics” of the shoreline. The agency relied on a single National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration study that ranked the sensitivity of shorelines to oil spills.
Sentelle called the ranking system “irrational” and said the “Interior provides no explanation for how the environmental sensitivity of coastal shoreline areas can serve as a substitute for the environmental sensitivity of [Outer Continental Shelf] areas, when the coastline and proposed leasing areas are so distant from each other.” The continental shelf can run from three to 200 miles from the shoreline.
The court vacated and remanded the leasing program, ordering the Interior Department to reconsider the environment risks and potential damage.