Battling Shell’s Claim to the Arctic

Audubon and a league of conservation groups are taking their fight against drilling in the Chukchi Sea to court.

This week Earthjustice filed two federal lawsuits on behalf of the National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pacific Environment, and seven other environmental groups to shield the Arctic Ocean from the colossal drills of the Shell Oil Company. The first suit aims to reverse the sale of 30 million acres of the Chukchi Sea to Shell; the second will attempt to stop exploratory drilling in the region this summer.

The controversial lease of the outer continental shelf was first approved by the Department of the Interior in 2008, and conservation groups have been questioning it since day one. A federal court decided to delay the sale twice, requiring the Department of Interior to study the ecological risks more closely. But in March, the government announced that after a “thorough environmental analysis” it would grant the leasing rights to Shell. Following that announcement, in May the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management formally granted the company permission to obtain permits to drill exploratory wells in the Chukchi.

Earthjustice, says that the sale alone violates the National Environmental Policy Act, requiring “federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision-making processes.”

Outside of the two lawsuits, the Department of the Interior’s own report decried offshore leases in the Arctic, stating that there's a 75 percent chance of one or more oil spills occurring from drilling.

These spills could be catastrophic to the millions of birds that live in the Chukchi. The area is inhabited by at least 15 species on Audubon's Alaska WatchList, including the Spectacled Eider, McKay’s Bunting, and Yellow-billed Loon, as well as walruses, polar bears, and other wildlife.

The Obama Administration's decision to allow Shell to drill in the Arctic counters the president's promise earlier this year to protect 9.8 million acres of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. After being challenged on the issue over Twitter, Obama said that he can't prevent oil exploration in the region and that the government is setting the highest possible standards for the drillers.

But environmentalists don’t agree, and frankly, are disappointed with the president’s decisions. Audubon Alaska’s policy directory Jim Adams says, “The Obama Administration has rushed to ensure that Shell can drill in the Arctic Ocean by 2015—we never saw any signs that the vetting process was anything but a sham.”