Late yesterday afternoon, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit entered a stay temporarily halting Shell Offshore Inc.’s plans to drill several exploratory oil wells in the middle of the bowhead whale migration corridor.
"This is a great relief to the people of the North Slope," said Faith Gemmill, of REDOIL. Asked about the challenge, Doreen Simmonds, an Inupiat resident of Barrow and REDOIL member said, "As a mother and a grandmother, I am concerned that the Arctic Inupiat whaling culture is at risk because the MMS insists on rushing ahead with offshore oil plans. The Arctic community revolves around the whaling way of life; there is not one facet of the ecosystem of the Arctic that does not concern the catching of the whale. Considering the movement of the ocean ice, there is too big of a risk that an oil spill will occur, therefore creating a risk of destroying the Inupiat culture."
Challenges to the plan were brought by REDOIL, a grassroots organization of Native subsistence users, and several conservation groups. Despite the threat oil drilling poses to the sensitive Arctic ecosystem, the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS) approved the plan through a rushed process without fully analyzing the potential impacts, and without conducting a public process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). MMS refused, for example, to consider the potential for an accidental spill of crude oil.
The groups challenging the plan are concerned that the plan threatens marine mammals, including species that are vital to subsistence like the bowhead whale and beluga whales. This level of industrial activity in the Beaufort threatens the endangered bowhead whale, polar bears and birds, including threatened Steller’s and spectacled eiders. Additionally, the constant air traffic associated with drilling can disturb caribou and interfere with the subsistence hunt.
"Polar bears are already threatened by global warming," said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Opening up some of their most important habitat in the United States to oil drilling and development would push them ever further down the path to extinction."
The court’s stay stops the drilling plan pending a hearing on the matter scheduled for August 14, 2007.
"This is a much needed respite for the delicate Arctic ecosystem. We are pleased the court is carefully considering the threats the drilling poses to Arctic wildlife and the people who rely upon that wildlife to sustain them," said Deirdre McDonnell of Earthjustice, attorney for the conservation groups and Native group, REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands).
Groups bringing the challenge represented by Earthjustice include the Alaska Wilderness League, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pacific Environment, and Center for Biological Diversity. The North Slope Borough and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission brought a separate challenge to the drilling plan.
Read the court decision (PDF)
Deirdre McDonnell/Michael LeVine, Earthjustice (907) 586-2751
Betsy Beardsley, Alaska Wilderness League, (907) 830-0184
Rachel James, Pacific Environment, (907) 952-0143
Faith Gemmill, REDOIL Network, (907) 750-0188
Julia Bovey, (202) 289-2420
Brendan Cummings (760) 366-2232, ext. 304
Trish Rolfe, Sierra Club, (907) 276-4044
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