Court Backs Shell's Arctic Offshore Drilling Plans

Sea ice in the Chukchi Sea. Photo: NOAA, Igor Lavrenov

Yesterday a federal appeals court rejected lawsuits that aimed to stop Shell Oil from conducting exploratory offshore drilling in Alaska waters slated to begin this summer.

Native American and conservation groups—including Audubon, Oceana, and Earthjustice—charged that the federal Minerals Management Service didn’t adequately consider the potential threats of exploratory drilling to wildlife or the risk of a large oil spill in the Arctic Ocean. After a week of oral arguments in Portland, Oregon, the three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected those claims, removing one of the final barriers before Shell can move forward with drilling.

“Today’s court ruling confirms that the legal authorities and regulatory agencies that govern offshore oil development are dysfunctional and incapable of assuring meaningful protection of our oceans and the coastal communities that depend on ocean resources,” Eric Myers, Audubon Alaska policy director, told Audubon.

“In both the Gulf of Mexico and in the Arctic, the oil industry has dismissed the threat of a large oil spill,” he added. “For its part, the Minerals Management Service has not treated the prospect of a major spill any more seriously nor has there been any meaningful requirement that the oil industry be prepared to respond to a major spill. The result is what you see today—an enormous oil slick destroying wildlife and livelihoods on a scale beyond comprehension.”

This summer Shell plans to use its 514-foot long drilling ship to drill three exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea and two in the Beaufort. In 2008, the same year President Bush and Congress lifted the decades-long offshore drilling moratorium, the company paid $2.1 billion for exploration rights in the Chukchi.

The seas are home to polar bears, endangered North Pacific right whales, walruses, and other wildlife already at risk from climate change. Drilling could further imperil the creatures that depend on the seas, conservation groups say. “There’s no proven method for cleaning up an oil spill in broken ice,” Marilyn Heiman, director of Pew’s US Arctic Program, told Audubon recently.

Pete Slaiby, Shell Alaska vice president, told the AP that the court decision demonstrates that the company has submitted robust, safe plans for exploration in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. He said Shell faces several other hurdles before it can drill. "In light of the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we are working hard to identify additional measures that could be incorporated into the program to make it even stronger," he said in an e-mail. "That said, this decision is a very large step in the right direction for us."

But conservation groups point out that BP wasn’t prepared to handle the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and that a similar accident in the Arctic would be even more challenging to tackle. “If a similar blowout occurred in remote Arctic waters, in mixed ice and harsh weather conditions, effective response would be impossible,” says Myers. “The oil industry’s repeated public assurances regarding response capabilities in the Arctic simply do not withstand serious scrutiny.”

Eleven of the groups pushing to prevent Shell from drilling in the Arctic said in a joint statement that “the court was evaluating a decision made before the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico happened. We believe that the new issues this incident has brought to light offer even more evidence that Shell must not proceed with plans for exploratory drilling in the Arctic’s Chukchi and Beaufort seas this summer.”

The project could still be delayed, as The New York Times explains:

Last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered a halt to all new offshore projects while his department reviewed safety measures for the work in light of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. As part of the review, the minerals service asked Shell to explain ways it could improve its ability to prevent and respond to a spill. Shell is supposed to respond by Tuesday. The Interior Department report is to be submitted to the White House by May 28.

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