Aug 032010
Authors: By Jim Tankersley, Tribune Washington Bureau for MCT

WASHINGTON – In a rare recent case of siding with the oil industry, the Obama administration has asked a federal judge to allow a major oil company to take some exploratory steps toward drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean.

Late last month, a district judge in Alaska blocked all drilling-related activities in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea, citing gaps in the government’s environmental impact assessments for drilling leases auctioned off during the Bush administration. The filing last Friday by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar did not challenge the broad finding that the government failed to follow the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

But Salazar asked the court to narrow the ruling to allow drilling giant Statoil, which owns several Chukchi leases, to commence seismic testing in the area. Seismic tests are conducted before actual drilling begins.

Environmental groups said they were stunned by the administration move, which they said undercuts the administration’s recent decisions to put the brakes on Arctic exploration in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

And, they said, marine mammals such as whales and walruses can be harmed by the testing. The impact of such tests on marine life was one of the issues the court said the federal government failed to consider adequately before issuing the Arctic drilling leases.

Interior officials said Statoil’s tests should be allowed to go forward because they were covered under a different – and, they say, more complete – environmental analysis than the Chukchi drilling leases as a whole. That analysis was finished in June, and Interior officials are reviewing it for possible “deficiencies” following the court ruling.

Environmentalists disagreed, saying the Statoil analysis relied heavily on the broader environmental analysis that the Alaska judge cited in blocking the Arctic drilling activities.

They noted that Salazar had decided to block Shell Oil from beginning exploratory drilling in the Arctic in light of safety concerns raised by the Gulf spill. The administration noted in its court filing that Statoil’s “seismic program will not involve any exploratory drilling.”

“The lease sale was a Bush decision,” said Layla Hughes, the World Wildlife Fund’s senior program officer for Arctic oil and gas policy. “And you’ve got Obama trying to narrow that opinion? That just blows my mind.”

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