Washington, DC — The Interior Department limited its environmental review of oil industry plans for drilling in Arctic waters to veil plans for building a liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility and establishing year-round tanker traffic, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The exclusion of these plans from agency environmental reviews allowed proponents to downplay potential effects on a host of marine species, including the polar bear, endangered bowhead whale, gray whale, Pacific walrus, seals, threatened eider, and other marine birds and fish.
The Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) has announced that it will hold Chukchi Sea Oil and Gas Lease Sale 193 on February 6, 2008. Last week, the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service revealed that it would not meet a legal deadline for it to decide whether the polar bear, for which the Chukchi Sea is important habitat, should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
What was not announced is that MMS also decided to handle industry oil and gas development plans on a piecemeal basis. Agency documents show that MMS Regional Director John Goll ignored protests by his own staff in keeping follow-on developments that Shell Oil disclosed to the agency out of any environmental reviews. These plans include an LNG facility and deployment of icebreakers and supply vessels to facilitate regular tanker traffic through dangerous Arctic waters.
“Interior wants to pretend that the nose under the tent has no camel attached to it,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that today the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming opened hearings on the Chukchi Sea lease. “On the important question as to whether to open up our Arctic waters to oil development, the Interior Department should lay all the cards on the table rather than hiding an ace up its sleeve.”
At the same time, MMS has denied requests by conservation groups filed under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for documents that PEER has now posted. In fact, MMS is withholding the vast majority of documents that provide the basis for MMS’s environmental impact analysis. MMS has declared that roughly 5500 pages out of about 5781 pages of responsive material are exempt from production. It has redacted hundreds of pages, consisting principally of emails from MMS employees, by deleting the entire text of each email and virtually the entire text of each attachment.
Questions are being raised as to the wisdom of proceeding with the Chukchi lease sale before Endangered Species Act protections can be put in place. Revelations that MMS deliberately minimized the scope of industry plans only reinforces the impression that the Interior Department is bending rules in order to open the Chukchi, Beaufort and Bering Seas to petroleum development regardless of consequences.
“Congress should put the brakes on this stampede for lame duck leasing of federal oil and gas rights,” Ruch added, pointing to recent scandals at MMS involving multi-billion dollar oil royalty giveaways. “The Bush administration’s entire Arctic drilling agenda merits a hard look by Congress before going one step further.”