A federal appeals court Wednesday gave the Interior Department the green light to proceed with oil lease plans for 5.6 million acres of Alaska’s pristine Bristol Bay, an area that is home to some of the world’s most productive fisheries and endangered species of birds and animals.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals cleared the way for exploratory seismic testing and geologic drilling by ordering that a preliminary injunction against the lease sale be lifted after a delay of two years.
Actual oil drilling is not yet an issue because it would not be approved until a later stage in the four-phase process, according to the court.
Environmentalists and Alaskan Indians would “suffer no hardship if the injunction is lifted, as none of the activities at the lease sale stage results in harm to the environment,” according to Judge Alex Kozinski.
A spokeswoman for one of the 12 environmental groups that brought suit against the Interior Department, assailed the ruling.
Calling the decision “very unfortunate,” Lisa Speer, senior staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “Once the leases are conveyed, it not only means they can do seismic testing, they basically have the right to do what they want.”
She called the area “the single most important region of the OCS (the Outer Continental Shelf) in terms of number of birds, marine mammals and fish. It possesses the greatest concentration of those creatures anywhere in the North American Continent.
“We will continue to oppose leasing in this and other sensitive areas,” Speer said. “We call on the next administration to act quickly to protect the world-class fishery and the jobs and regional economies these fisheries support.”
Alaskan Indians, seven Alaska fisheries groups, the governor of Alaska and the environmental groups brought suit against Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel to stop the lease sale involving Amoco Production Co., Arco Alaska Inc., Chevron USA Inc. and the International Assn. of Geophysical Contractors.