Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued a quiet but crucial decision for the future of offshore oil and gas leasing. The court invalidated the Bush administration’s 2007-2012 Five-Year Leasing Program, which had authorized large-scale lease sales in the sensitive and vitally important Arctic Ocean.
In Center for Biological Diversity v. U.S. Department of the Interior, the court found that the Department of Interior - which is charged with selling the leases while protecting the environment - had failed to appropriately balance potential environmental harm with the potential economic benefits from oil and gas leasing. The government had arbitrarily decided that vast Arctic waters faced the same risks from oil and gas development as the coasts, despite the fact that we know very little about the Arctic’s unique and sensitive ecosystems.
Oceana submitted an amicus brief in support of the petitioners’ case along with the Ocean Conservancy, National Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Our brief is science-based and makes the following case - given how little is known about Arctic Ocean ecosystems, given that they are changing more rapidly than scientists predicted, and given that the communities in the Arctic are dependent on them, the government should not move ahead with leasing there.
The federal government has acknowledged that oil and gas development in the Arctic is likely to result in at least two oil spills, and that we have no technology to clean up spills in the Arctic. Offshore drilling in those remote, frigid waters makes less sense than ever, posing substantial risk to the delicate Arctic ecosystem, from the smallest krill to the largest whales.
This is a huge victory for the oceans because it provides the opportunity and obligation for our government to rethink earlier decisions to rush forward to drill. It gives me hope that a precautionary approach - one where science takes precedence over panic drilling - will guide development in the Arctic, and the rest of the world’s oceans.
[Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana]