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DC Circuit Strikes Down Bush-Era Off-Shore Drilling Program

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has ruled that a plan to open up offshore drilling off the coast of Alaska cannot go forward until the Department of the Interior conducts further review of the program's environmental impact. 

The Department's leasing program would have expanded the lease offerings available for the continental shelf in the Beaufort, Bering, and Chukchi Seas off the coast of Alaska.  The continental shelf is the portion of submerged land and seabed that lies between the end of a state's jurisdiction and the end of the United States' jurisdiction. 

The seas in question act as habitat for a number of wildlife species, including polar bears, a number of whale species, seals, the Pacific walrus, and various seabirds.

The petitioner, the Center for Biological Diversity, petitioned for review of the leasing program, raising a number of objections to the plan.  The court dismissed several of the claims as unripe for review, and found that other claims lacked merit.

The court agreed with the petitioner on a key point, however.  The petitioner claimed that the program violated the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) since the Department irrationally relied on a single report when determining the environmental impact of a project on the outer continental shelf. 

The DC Circuit agreed.  The court found that the Department had made its determination that the program could proceed after it consulted a single study that focused on possible effects of oil spills on the shoreline in the areas affected by the program.  The court held that the department's reliance on this study was irrational, since the OCSLA required that the department look at the effects of the project on the outer continental shelf area.

Since the department had offered no explanation for why its focus on the shoreline could substitute for the statutorily-required examination of the impact on the continental shelf, the court concluded that the department could not rely on the study as a justification for the project to proceed.

As relief, the court vacated the leasing program and remanded it back to the Department for further consideration of the issues raised in the decision.

The project could still proceed, of course, if the Department conducts a more thorough review and determines that the benefits of exploration outweigh any potential negative environmental impacts. 

Whether the Department of the Interior under the Obama Administration will make such a determination is an interesting political question, the answer to which remains to be seen.