DC Circuit halts offshore drilling programs News
DC Circuit halts offshore drilling programs

[JURIST] A three judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit [official website] vacated [opinion, PDF] Friday the Bush-era program [MMS backgrounder] for leasing of land for oil and gas drilling on the US Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) along the Alaskan coast. The court held that the Department of Interior (DOI) [official website] had not carried out an environmental sensitivity study in accordance with the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) [text, PDF; MMS backgrounder] when it ranked the sensitivity of various program areas in the Beaufort, Bering, and Chukchi seas only in terms of the physical characteristics of the shoreline of those areas. In its opinion, the court disagreed with the DOI's reliance on the Environmental Sensitivity Index [NOAA materials], developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) [official website], which ranks the sensitivity of different shoreline areas to oil spills:

Section 18(a)(2)(G) [of the OSCLA] states clearly that an agency must assess the environmental sensitivity of “different areas of the outer Continental Shelf” in order to make its determination of when and where to explore and develop additional areas for oil. Based on this language alone, Interior’s use of the NOAA study runs afoul of this provision because it assesses only the effects of oil spills on shorelines. Interior provides no explanation for how the environmental sensitivity of coastal shoreline areas can serve as a substitute for the environmental sensitivity of OCS areas, when the coastline and proposed leasing areas are so distant from each other. This interpretation runs directly counter to the statutory language.

The court ordered the DOI to re-assess the environmental impact of the proposed leasing program before moving forward. In response to the ruling the American Petroleum Institute (API) [official website], which had joined the litigation as an intervenor advocating the lease program, said, "it would be a disservice to all Americans – and a devastating blow to the economy – if this decision were to delay further the development of vital oil and natural gas resources."

The ruling follows plans [JURIST report] by the Obama administration to reverse offshore drilling policies established by former US President George W. Bush [JURIST news archive] at the end of his presidency. The new strategy involves extending the public comment period on the proposed five-year plan for oil and gas development on the OCS by 180 days, assembling a detailed report from DOI agencies on conventional and renewable offshore energy resources, holding four regional conferences to review these findings, and expediting renewable energy rulemaking for the OCS.