SEATTLE — The Bush administration's authorization of a major new offshore oil drilling program in the Arctic Ocean was dealt a serious setback Thursday when a federal appeals court ruled the plan did not adequately consider the effect on bowhead whales and the native villagers who make their living from the frigid coastal waters.
Ruling on the first of several major new projects for tapping oil and gas deposits from the Arctic floor, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the federal government should have prepared a more exhaustive environmental review before concluding that harm to whales, caribou and other Arctic wildlife either would be insignificant or could be mitigated.
In a 2-1 decision, the court ordered the federal Minerals Management Agency to prepare a more thorough review, a decision that probably puts the offshore exploration plan up for new consideration under the administration of Barack Obama. Environmentalists have fought the plan, saying it could have disastrous consequences for Arctic wildlife.
"I think the new administration can respond to this decision by calling for a timeout on new exploration and leasing in the Arctic Ocean until a full review of potential impacts and conservation measures is completed," said Eric Jorgensen, managing attorney at Earthjustice in Juneau, Alaska.
Rebecca Noblin of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of several plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement: "If polar bears and other ice-dependent species are to survive as the Arctic melts in the face of global warming, we need to protect their critical habitat, not turn it into an industrial zone."
Officials at Shell Offshore Inc., which has proposed to drill up to 12 exploratory wells in the Arctic's Beaufort Sea over the next three years, said they were convinced that the company had "met or exceeded" requirements for environmental analysis -- including how noise from exploratory drilling might affect the migration patterns of fish, endangered bowhead whales and caribou, which give birth in the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"The U.S. faces an energy supply crisis, and delays like this only extend and aggravate it. In times of shrinking global supply and ever increasing reliance on imported oil, the Alaska offshore could be a significant resource for national energy security," Shell said in a statement.
Republican Gov. Sarah Palin, who has urged the nation to take better advantage of Alaska's untapped oil and gas resources, expressed determination to get the project back on track.
"We're disappointed, but will work with the company moving forward from here," said her chief spokesman, Bill McAllister.
The decision requires the Minerals Management Agency to create either a revised environmental analysis, which might be done relatively quickly, or a full environmental impact statement, which would likely mean a lengthy delay.
"We are unpersuaded that MMS took the requisite 'hard look' at the environmental impact of this project. There remain substantial questions as to whether Shell's plan may cause significant harm to the people and wildlife of the Beaufort Sea region," Judge Dorothy W. Nelson wrote for the majority.