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Chukchi Drilling Review Still Flawed, Groups Say

The federal agency overseeing offshore petroleum drilling said Thursday it has corrected flaws a federal judge cited, but Environmental and Alaska Native groups disagree.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The federal agency overseeing offshore petroleum drilling said Thursday it has corrected flaws a federal judge cited in environmental work ahead of a 2008 lease sale off Alaska's northwest coast.

Environmental and Alaska Native groups who sued to block drilling in the Chukchi Sea disagree. They say the Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement still has not addressed crucial information gaps, such how drilling will affect polar bear, walrus and other species affected by global warming, and how petroleum companies will clean up spills in ice-choked waters.

They are appealing to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to delay proposed drilling by Shell Oil and others in the Chukchi.

Environmental groups and Alaska Native organizations challenged Chukchi Lease Sale 193 in federal court in February 2008. In July 2010, U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline remanded the sale back to BOEMRE for further analysis. Beistline said the agency failed to determine whether information it acknowledged was missing before the sale was relevant or essential under environmental law, or whether the cost of obtaining that information was exorbitant.

The agency analyzed only the development of the first field of 1 billion barrels of oil, despite acknowledging that the amount was the minimum level of development that could occur on the leases.

The bureau announced changes in October, held public hearings in Alaska and received more than 360,000 comment letters or cards.

"We have worked diligently to address the District Court's concerns in a thorough and comprehensive manner," BOEMRE Director Michael Bromwich said in Thursday's announcement. "This will ensure that decisions relating to this lease sale will be made in a careful, balanced manner using the best scientific information available."

The revisions, Bromwich said, analyze potential environmental effects of a hypothetical "very large oil spill" scenario. BOEMRE also carefully reviewed a report by the U.S. Geological Survey in June that identified data gaps. Gaps that fell within the scope of the environmental review have been previously identified and are being addressed, according to the agency.

Environmental groups, however, said the agency has ignored information gaps identified by USGS: basic weather and oceanographic data such as tidal systems and currents that could be fed into models in case of a spill, a better understanding of climate change in the region, and fundamental biology about ice-dependent species such as ice seals and walrus.

Carole Holley of Pacific Environment said the government is ignoring its own experts.

"President Obama and BOEMRE have concluded that not a single piece of essential missing information is needed to decide to drill in the remote and pristine Chukchi Sea," she said.

The stakes for drilling are enormous.

Federal officials estimate the Arctic waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas hold 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The state of Alaska, with a budget dependent on petroleum earnings, has pushed for offshore drilling as a source to keep oil in the trans-Alaska pipeline.

The Chukchi lease sale brought in nearly $2.7 billion for the federal government from the sale of 2.76 million acres, including $2.1 billion in high bids submitted by Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc. The unit of Royal Dutch Shell PLC has drilled no new wells because of court challenges or its inability to obtain permits. Shell hopes to receive permission to drill exploratory wells next summer.

Comments on the agency's supplemental environmental work will be taken through Sept. 26. A final decision on the sale by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is due to the District Court by Oct. 3.