A federal court recently ruled that the Bush administration’s five-year offshore drilling program in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska was approved illegally. Now it is up to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Obama administration to follow the court’s ruling and throw out all leases that are part of the program so that we can all move forward with a clean slate.

The 2007-2012 offshore drilling program, which took effect in July 2007, would open more than 80 million acres in the Beaufort, Chukchi and Bering Seas to unprecedented levels of environmentally risky oil and gas development. This includes the nearly 3 million acres of the Chukchi Sea already leased to the oil and gas industry in a February 2008 lease sale, and the 79 million acres slated to be leased in the Chukchi, Beaufort and Bering Seas in 2010-2012.

Alaska Wilderness League, along with the Native Village of Point Hope, Center for Biological Diversity and Pacific Environment, brought the case before the court because of the severe impacts that development activity would have on these sensitive waters. For example, federal experts have determined that there is a 40 percent chance of a large oil spill in the Chukchi Sea yet there is no technology to clean up such a spill in the Arctic’s icy waters.

The Inupiat people, who have depended on the Arctic Ocean for their subsistence lifestyle for thousands of years, are already feeling these impacts, as explained by Caroline Cannon, president of the Native Village of Point Hope:

“It feels as if the government and industry want us to forget who we are, what we have a right to, and what we deserve. They repeatedly overwhelm us with information, requests and deadlines and it seems as if they hope that we will either give up or die fighting,” Cannon wrote in declaration to the court. “The fact that the United States has sold leases in the traditional waters of the Native Village of Point Hope causes my community great alarm. This drilling plan and the associated seismic testing, increases in vessel traffic, proposed large onshore and offshore infrastructure projects, and projections of oil spills in our unindustrialized homelands is extremely stressful. Our traditional knowledge indicates that each of these things independently threaten the existence of our traditional culture. We are already facing the consequences of climate change and the industrialization of the Beaufort Coast. This cumulative stress may prove to be a tipping point.”

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), along with 20 other members of Congress, sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently urging him “to make sure we do not follow the environmentally risky course the Bush administration charted for industrial development in these fragile and unique northern waters.”

Secretary Salazar has said that the Bush administration’s offshore drilling plans were not based on sound science. He has made it clear that he plans to do things differently – the four hearings he held on our nation’s four coasts in April to gain input on offshore drilling were a key step in this direction. Now, when it comes to the Arctic, he must move forward without the bias from existing commitments to the oil and gas industry, and develop a comprehensive plan that ensures that these waters – that are critical to Alaska Native cultures and species like the threatened polar bear and endangered bowhead whale – are protected for future generations.