A bearded seal rests on the ice against a backdrop of the eastern extent of the oil development in Prudhoe Bay, Beaufort Sea, Alaskan Arctic. Shell's oil spill response plans rely on optimistic and unfounded assumptions that ignore the realities of Arctic conditions. (Florian Schulz / visionsofthewild.com)
Earthjustice, on behalf of a coalition of conservation and indigenous rights organizations, is suing to challenge the federal government's approval of Shell Oil Company's Chukchi and Beaufort Sea oil spill response plans. The plans, approved by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), describe how the company says it will prepare for and respond to a major oil spill caused by offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean. "This case is the first of its kind and will set the stage for the future of oil spill prevention and response in the Arctic Ocean," says Holly Harris, an Earthjustice Staff Attorney working on the case.
"This case challenges the fiction that the oil industry is prepared to cleanup an offshore oil spill in the Arctic Ocean," Harris explains. "An offshore oil spill in the Arctic threatens dire circumstances because it would occur more than a thousand miles from the nearest Coast Guard station in one of the harshest and most remote environments in the world," she cautions. "And ultimately, of course, companies facing an offshore oil spill must confront the fact that the Arctic Ocean freezes over at the end of the summer," Harris notes.
Yet, Shell's plans rely on optimistic and unfounded assumptions that ignore the realities of Arctic conditions. The plans' shoreline protection strategies, for example, are based on the assumption that Shell will clean up more than 90 percent of any spilled oil. Even in relatively favorable environmental conditions, less than 10 percent of spilled oil was recovered after the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez spills. In the Arctic, sea ice, harsh weather, high seas, darkness and wind may render even that level of cleanup impossible.
The agency also approved the plans without preparing a careful environmental assessment of the spill response choices Shell made. For example, the agency should have considered the effects of Shell's proposal to use chemical dispersants to breakdown oil in the Arctic Ocean, including effects on fish, birds, and marine mammals, like the endangered bowhead whale.
"Before an oil company dumps thousands of barrels of chemical dispersants into the Arctic Ocean, like BP did in the Gulf of Mexico, the government was required to evaluate the environmental consequences. Here, the government ignored those obligations; this case seeks to correct those failings," explains Harris.
Earthjustice is representing Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, Inc., National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Ocean Conservancy, Oceana, Pacific Environment, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), and Sierra Club in this case.
Visions of the Arctic, a Photo Slideshow: Of all the places Earthjustice works to protect, few are as iconic and misunderstood as the Arctic Ocean. The Arctic's Beaufort and Chukchi seas support thriving, diverse ecosystems that teem with life, including bowhead whales, polar bears, walrus, seals and waterfowl. Explore the Arctic through a slideshow of photos by acclaimed photographer Florian Schulz.