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Federal Agency Approves Shell Drilling Plan in Arctic Waters

This week, the federal Minerals Management Service issued a disappointing decision to approve plans by Shell Oil to drill for oil and gas in Alaska's Beaufort Sea—starting next summer.

There are a number of steps and permits for Shell to navigate before drilling begins, but this action sets the stage for large-scale industrial drilling just offshore of the Arctic refuge, directly in the migration path of endangered bowhead whales. An oil spill in these icy waters could not be cleaned up.

With this decision, MMS repeats past mistakes by its failure to properly address the potential for massive environmental consequences, said Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe. A spill would be devastating for people, wildlife and the environment. Earthjustice stopped a similar Shell drilling plan in that area two years ago, winning an injunction from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on the basis of MMS's shallow analysis of impacts.

As Shell tries to complete the approval process for this latest plan, Earthjustice will encourage other agencies to take a more responsible course and, if need be, explore legal remedies, Grafe said. Among other things, Shell must obtain an air quality permit from the Environmental Protection Agency and a harassment authorization from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In September, more than 23,000 Earthjustice supporters joined a national coalition of conservation organizations in sending messages to Sec. of Interior Ken Salazar, calling for a time out on drilling and leasing in America's Arctic. At the same time, some 400 scientists sent a letter to the Obama administration with the same message.

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