Reporting from Washington —
In a rare recent case of siding with the oil industry, the Obama administration has asked a federal judge to allow some exploratory steps toward drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean.
Late last month, a district judge in Alaska blocked all drilling-related activities in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea, citing gaps in the government's environmental impact assessments for drilling leases auctioned off during the George W. Bush administration.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar responded Friday by asking the court to narrow the ruling to allow drilling giant Statoil, which owns several Chukchi leases, to begin seismic testing in the area. Seismic tests are conducted before drilling begins.
Environmental groups said they were stunned by the administration's move, which they said undercut its decision after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to put the brakes on Arctic exploration.
"The lease sale was a Bush decision," said Layla Hughes, the World Wildlife Fund's senior program officer for Arctic oil and gas policy. "And you've got Obama trying to narrow that opinion? That just blows my mind."
Environmentalists said marine mammals, such as whales and walruses, could be harmed by seismic testing. The effect of such tests on marine life was one of the issues the court said the federal government failed to consider adequately before issuing the Arctic drilling leases.
Interior Department officials said Statoil's tests should be allowed to go forward because they were covered under a later — and, they say, more complete — environmental analysis that was finished in June.
Environmentalists disagreed, saying the Statoil analysis relied heavily on the original environmental analysis that the Alaska judge cited in blocking the Arctic drilling activities.