Alaska Democrat ‘optimistic’ on Arctic drilling this summer

WASHINGTON — Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska is optimistic that a federal court ruling against the government’s handling of offshore drilling leases won’t stop oil drilling in Arctic waters this summer.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Interior Department regulators acted arbitrarily when they estimated, in an environmental analysis before leasing the acreage in 2008, that about 1 billion barrels of oil could be recovered from leases in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska.

The appeals panel sent the case back to federal district court and it’s possible the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will have to redo part of the environmental analysis before allowing further work on Chukchi Sea drilling leases sold in 2008.

That could be a blow to Shell Oil Co., which has  asked federal regulators for permission to resume drilling in the Chukchi Sea this summer. It did preliminary drilling there in 2012.

Related story: Feds ask Shell for assurances on Arctic drilling

A Shell spokesman said the company is reviewing the appeals court decision. An ocean energy bureau spokeswoman said the agency would not comment on pending litigation.

But Begich was nonplussed.

“I remain confident that we will see continued safe exploration in the Arctic this summer,” the Democratic senator said.  “The Arctic has already been and will continue to be subjected to unprecedented safety standards and (this) announcement does not delay the important progress we have made.”

Begich said he’s  “optimistic that we will see safe, responsible development in the Arctic this summer.”

Environmentalists hope Begich’s optimism is misplaced — and are asking the Obama administration to seize on the ruling as a chance to shift course on Arctic drilling.

“Our government cannot justify the bad decision to hold Lease Sale 193 and, now, five years later, should stop trying,” said Michael Levine, Pacific senior counsel for the conservation group Oceana. “Rather than taking steps to further poorly planned and risky drilling, our government should provide stewardship based on sound science, thorough analysis, and protection of important ocean resources.”