Shell Oil’s oil spill response plans for leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas on Alaska’s Arctic coast pass muster, a federal appeals court held Thursday.
The ruling lifts an environmental barrier to oil exploration and drilling for oil and gas in the remote Arctic coast that have stalled since the leases were issued between 2005 and 2008.
In a split 2-1 panel decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement did not need to consult with other agencies on the impact of the plans under the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Shell Gull of Mexico Inc and Shell Offshore Inc. acquired exploration leases but drilling has been waylaid by legal, logistical and environmental problems, including multiple lawsuits, according to Judge Jacqueline Nguyen. In addition, one drilling rig was wrecked and drilling was temporarily suspended following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Environmental groups, including Alaska Wilderness League, Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity, brought this challenge.
The panel was unanimous in upholding the plans, saying they were not arbitrary or capricious. Nguyen said the bureau was required to approve an oil response plan that meets the requirements of the law.
Judge Dorothy Nelson dissented on the portion of the ruling that held the plans did not require consultation.
“The majority holds that because the bureau had no choice but to approve any oil response plan that met the enumerated requirements in the Oil Pollution Act, the bureau was exempt from NEPA review. I disagree,” Nelson wrote.
The Oil Pollution Act specifically tells the bureau to consider environmental factors in its decisionmaking, Nelson said.
Case: Alaska Wilderness League v. Jewell, No. 13-35866