The U.S. government violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it sold drilling rights for oil and gas development off Alaska's northwest coast, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday.

The case involves Department of Interior's (DOI) Minerals Management Service (MMS) 2008 Chukchi Sea 193 Sale -- the first at the time since 1991. Companies submitted bids totaling nearly $3.4 billion, with high bids of close to $2.7 billion (see Daily GPI, Feb. 8, 2008).

Alaska U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline determined that "...the agency: (1) failed to analyze the environmental impact of natural gas development, despite industry interest and specific lease incentives for such development; (2) failed to determine whether missing information identified by the agency was relevant or essential...and (3) failed to determine whether the cost of obtaining the missing information was exorbitant, or the means of doing so unknown...This does not necessarily require the agency to completely redo the permitting process, but merely to address the three concerns addressed above."

The judge enjoined all activity under Sale 193 pending review by Interior [1:08-cv-0004-RRB]. "This matter is remanded to the agency to satisfy its obligations under NEPA in accordance with this opinion."

The MMS was recently renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) as part of a retooling to address the fallout from the BP plc well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico (see Daily GPI, June 22).

In the challenge to Sale 193 Earthjustice represented the Native Village of Point Hope, City of Point Hope, Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Oceana, Pacific Environment, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and World Wildlife Fund.

The Chukchi Sea is home to sensitive populations of endangered polar bears, bowhead whales and spectacled and Steller's eiders, among many other species of fish and wildlife, according to the environmentalists.

"This is a victory for both the Arctic environment and for the communities of Alaska's North Slope," said Carole Holley, Alaska program codirector at Pacific Environment. "As it has been repeatedly demonstrated -- and now reinforced by the BP tragedy in the Gulf [of Mexico] -- the Department of the Interior and the former Minerals Management Service has failed more often than not at providing the necessary oversight for decisions related to offshore oil and gas development."

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