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Earthjustice Challenges Approvals of Shell Oil Spill Plans

First published July 17, 2012
Updated June 11, 2015

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.

Update: June 11, 2015

In a 2–1 vote, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement complied with the law when it approved Shell Oil’s plans for preventing and cleaning up an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The decision comes in response to a lawsuit filed by a coalition of conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice.

Statement from Earthjustice Staff Attorney Holly Harris: “This decision is a troubling one for the Arctic Ocean. A divided panel of the Ninth Circuit deferred to the Obama administration’s position that the government lacks the ability under the Oil Pollution Act to ensure a spill plan has all the necessary resources to protect the environment.

"After the devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill, Congress enacted a statute that required government review and oversight of oil spill plans to make sure companies were ready to prevent and cleanup spills to the maximum extent possible. Limiting the government’s role in reviewing and assessing the adequacy of these plans puts the Arctic Ocean at risk from Shell’s drilling. Despite today’s decision, President Obama and his administration have not yet given final approval to Shell’s dangerous and dirty drilling in the Arctic Ocean and we urge them to protect the Arctic Ocean and to act in a manner which prevents climate change by saying no to drilling.”