Reporting from Washington and Anchorage —
A federal judge in Alaska blocked plans Wednesday for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, ruling that the Interior Department did not adequately consider the proposal's environmental effects.
The government did not analyze the possible effects of natural gas exploration in Alaska's Chukchi Sea, the judge said, nor did it compile potentially crucial information about how drilling could affect wildlife.
Both actions violated the National Environmental Policy Act, one of the nation's signature environmental laws, U.S. District Judge Ralph R. Beistline ruled. He ordered the department to revise its environmental analysis before drilling can proceed.
The ruling adds to the oil and gas industry's recent Arctic setbacks. Shell Oil was poised to begin exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea this summer, but the Obama administration froze the plan after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, citing safety concerns.
Environmentalists said the judge's ruling could put a stop to all pre-drilling activities, such as seismic tests, which drilling companies had planned to begin soon — and which conservation groups warn could harm whales and other marine mammals.
"We've long argued that more science and data and research are needed in the Arctic Ocean before it's opened up to oil and gas activities, and this decision reaffirms that concern," said Erik Grafe, an attorney with Earthjustice in Alaska who argued the case.
Layla Hughes, the World Wildlife Fund's senior program officer for Arctic oil and gas policy, said the ruling affirmed "that the entire oil and gas leasing process in Alaska is a total mess, and really what needs to be done is these leases need to be voided and the administration needs to start over."
Shell said in a statement: "We're still analyzing how the court ruling might impact the non-drilling work we have planned for this summer…. We are also unsure as to how it might impact our aspirations to drill in 2011."
An Interior Department spokeswoman said late Wednesday that the department was reviewing the court's decision.