Court Denies Offshore Oil Lease Sale in America’s Arctic

Date: January 22, 2014

Lease Sale 193 in the Chukchi Sea remanded by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals

Today, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Department of the Interior violated the law when it sold offshore oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska.  The decision stems from a lawsuit filed by a coalition of Alaska Native and conservation groups made up of: the Native Village of Point Hope, Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Oceana, Pacific Environment, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and World Wildlife Fund.  Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, represented the groups.

In response to the decision, the organizations issue the following joint statement:

“Today’s ruling is a victory for the Arctic Ocean.  The government has no business offering oil companies leases in the Chukchi Sea.  The area is home to iconic species such as polar bear, bowhead whales, and walrus and to a vibrant indigenous subsistence culture.  Drilling for oil puts at risk the region’s wildlife and people, and it takes us off the path toward a clean energy future.

For the second time, a court has found that the government ignored basic legal protections for our ocean resources in deciding to open the Chukchi Sea to offshore oil leasing.  The Obama administration must now take seriously its obligation to re-think whether to allow risky industrial activities in the Chukchi Sea.  As Shell’s problems have clearly demonstrated, companies are not ready to drill in the Arctic Ocean.”

Individual Statements:

“There is no way to safely drill for oil in such severe Arctic conditions in the Chukchi Sea,” said Kevin Harun, Arctic Program Director for Pacific Environment.  “This decision is a victory for our environment and the indigenous peoples who depend on pristine Arctic waters for their subsistence and food security.”

“The Obama administration now has the chance to do right by the Arctic and the planet by keeping oil drilling out of the Chukchi Sea.  It makes no sense to open up the fragile, irreplaceable, and already melting Arctic Ocean to risky drilling for dirty oil that will only exacerbate climate change already wreaking havoc on the Arctic and elsewhere,” said Erik Grafe, an attorney at Earthjustice, which represents the groups.

“This decision confirms that it made no sense at all for the Bush administration to lease the Chukchi Sea to the oil industry when we know next to nothing about how that activity will impact those waters and its marine life, as well as the people who have relied on the Chukchi Sea for thousands of years as their ‘garden,’” said Cindy Shogan, Executive Director, Alaska Wilderness League. “Rather than risking a Deepwater Horizon-like disaster in the Arctic by Shell Oil or other leaseholders, the Obama administration should recognize the unique challenges of drilling in the Arctic, including the risks associated with climate change, the lack of scientific data and knowledge about the Arctic, as well as the lack of technology and means to clean up a spill in its often harsh and chaotic conditions. For all of these reasons we should leave the Chukchi Sea free of oil rigs.”

“We don’t know nearly enough about the Chukchi Sea ecosystems – let alone about how to clean up an oil spill in ice-locked seas – to let international corporations go around poking holes in the seafloor,” said Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold. “We do know that the Arctic Ocean is crucial for marine birds and mammals, holding globally significant feeding and resting areas for dozens of species, and they need to be protected.  This decision gives the White House a chance to reconsider drilling in the Chukchi.”

“The melting Chukchi Sea is no place for drillships. It’s a place where polar bears hunt for ringed seals, where walruses socialize and bowhead whales make their way to rich feeding grounds. The Obama administration should take the Court’s ruling as an opportunity to step back from industrializing this fragile Arctic sea,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska Director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Drilling in the Arctic Ocean would deliver a terrible one-two sucker punch to one of the wildest places on Earth and the Arctic ice cap we need as an air conditioner for our warming planet,” said Charles Clusen, Director, Alaska Project at Natural Resources Defense Council.  “With the clarity of this ruling, the Obama administration now should seize an historic opportunity to protect this exceptional treasure, before it’s too late.”

“This is a victory for the living Arctic Ocean and its surrounding coasts vital to our wild salmon, migratory birds, and incredible marine mammals,” said Pamela Miller, Arctic Program Director for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.  “It is time to step back from the poor and rushed offshore Chukchi Sea lease sale, originally held by the Bush Administration.  It is not responsible to move forward with risky plans to drill in the bountiful Chukchi Sea nor hold any lease sales until the effects of climate change are fully taken into account and there are proven oil spill response capabilities.”

“It was clearly and repeatedly demonstrated in 2012 that oil companies are not able to operate safely and without harming the offshore environment in the Arctic,” said Susan Murray, Deputy Vice President of the Pacific for Oceana.  “The fragile and remote offshore Arctic is no place for on the job training for oil companies; and it makes no sense to offer offshore leases there.  We applaud the court’s decision in coming to this common sense conclusion.”

“Drilling in the Arctic is a doubly bad decision. Not only does it threaten this harsh yet delicate place with permanent damage from an oil spill, it also creates a cycle that worsens climate change—generating carbon pollution that heats the planet while also melting the ice that helps keep it cool,” said Dan Ritzman, Sierra Club Alaska Program Director. “We are pleased with the court’s decision as it allows the Administration to revisit Arctic Ocean drilling.  If the Obama administration is serious about fighting climate change, the administration must keep the Arctic off-limits to drilling and this pollution in the ground.”

“We’ve known for years that the sale of these leases was premature and that neither the federal government nor the industry is ready to safely develop oil and gas resources in the Chukchi Sea,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska Region Director of The Wilderness Society. “The Obama administration should take this opportunity to reconsider allowing oil and gas activities in the Arctic Ocean, particularly in light of the administration’s commitment to address climate change. “

“It has repeatedly been demonstrated that Arctic offshore drilling is fraught with dangers that defy rational economic development.  Today’s court decision gives a much-needed reprieve to our fragile Arctic waters and the wildlife and people who depend on them,” said Margaret Williams, Managing Director of WWF’s Arctic Field Program.


The Chukchi Sea is part of America’s Arctic Ocean north of Alaska.  It is home to iconic species such as polar bears, walrus, beluga whales, bowhead whales, and seals.  It is also home to vibrant Alaska Native communities that have depended for millennia on the ocean for their subsistence way of life.  The region is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, putting tremendous strain on its wildlife and people.  There is currently no oil and gas development in the Chukchi Sea.  The Chukchi Sea and its coast are remote—the coast contains only four small communities that are not connected to a road system, lack deep-water harbors, and can only be reached by plane or, in summer, by boat.  The region is hundreds of miles from the nearest coast-guard station and lacks rescue and oil spill response capacity.

The Chukchi Sea lease sale, Sale 193, was originally held in 2008 by the Bush administration. It offered nearly 30 million acres in the Chukchi Sea for oil drilling—an area larger than the size of Pennsylvania.  Prior to the lease sale, there were no active oil leases in the sea.   In 2010 The Federal District Court in Alaska determined that the original lease sale violated the National Environmental Protection Act, one of the foundations of U.S. environmental law, because the Department of Interior had failed to address the widely recognized gaps in what is known about nearly every species in the Chukchi Sea.  It required the agency to reconsider the decision.  In October 2011, the Obama administration also decided to reaffirm the lease sale, despite the acknowledged gaps in information. The District Court upheld the Obama administration’s affirmation of the lease sale.  The appeal decided today followed.

The Court today agreed with the groups that the Department of Interior failed adequately to analyze the potentially dramatic environmental effects of the sale before offering the leases.  It determined that the agency had analyzed “only the best case scenario for environmental harm, assuming oil development,” and that this analysis “skews the data toward fewer environmental impacts, and thus impedes a full and fair discussion of the potential effects of the project.”  The agency will have to revise or supplement its analysis for the lease sale once again and must reconsider its lease sale decision.


Doug Norlen, Pacific Environment, (202) 465-1650

Erik Grafe, Earthjustice, (907) 792‐7102

Gwen Dobbs, Alaska Wilderness League, (202) 544-5205

Beth Peluso, Audubon Alaska, (907) 276-7034

Rebecca Noblin, Center for Biological Diversity, (907) 274-1110

Nathaniel Lawrence, Natural Resources Defense Council, (360) 534-9900

Pamela Miller, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, (907) 452-5021

Michael LeVine, Oceana, (907) 586-1593

Faith Gemmill, REDOIL, (907) 750-0188

Virginia Cramer, Sierra Club, (804) 225-9113 x 102

Nicole Whittington-Evans, The Wilderness Society, (907) 272.9453 x 103

Chris Conner, World Wildlife Fund, (202) 492-2001