The events relating to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continue metaphorically to parallel the relationship between the courts and environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) with regard to deep water oil drilling off the north coast of Alaska. Shortly after BP installed a temporary cap on its blown-out well beneath the Gulf of Mexico and began a days long pressure test of the integrity of the well, the U.S. District Court in Alaska issued an order having a similar effect on oil drilling planned by Shell Oil in the ocean off Alaska’s coast. On July 21, 2010, U.S. District Judge Ralph R. Beistline, issued an order determining that the Minerals Management Service (MMS) (recently renamed Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE)) of the U.S. Department of the Interior had failed adequately to consider certain issues in its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) prepared under NEPA for the sale of an oil and gas lease in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska.
NEPA requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to those actions. This assessment of the environmental impacts of an action goes into a document known as the Environmental Impact Statement or EIS. Because the public and other federal agencies provide comments to the proposed action based on the EIS, it is important that the EIS adequately consider the environmental impacts. While a court cannot prohibit a federal agency from taking an action, it can require that the EIS be complete before the agency acts. This is what the court did in Alaska in finding that the FEIS did not comply with NEPA. Based on that determination, the court issued an injunction temporarily halting further activity under the offshore oil and gas lease. The injunction, however, will only last until BOEMRE has supplemented its FEIS to deal with the omitted issues and reaffirmed the lease sale.
Like the cap on BP’s well in the Gulf of Mexico, the court order is not a final resolution of the environmental issues with regard to Alaskan offshore oil drilling. It merely puts a temporary halt to oil exploration in the area while giving the responsible federal regulatory agency the opportunity to pass its own pressure test — making sure that the environment is properly considered before oil and gas exploration is allowed to continue.