Bowhead whales, polar bears and other marine mammals face substantial harm if Shell Offshore Inc. is allowed to conduct exploratory oil drilling in the coastal Beaufort Sea this fall, a coalition of Native Alaskans and conservation groups argued today before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The groups challenged an exploration permit granted to Shell by the Mineral Management Service because the agency failed to consider the environmental impacts of such large-scale activity. The court temporarily halted Shell's exploration last month until arguments could be presented today.
Noise from exploration activities will disturb bowhead whale migration and feeding in the Beaufort. Also at risk from disturbance and potential oil spills are polar bears and a variety of other animals, including the threatened Steller's and spectacled eiders.
"The agency's own scientists have warned that this type of activity could threaten serious impacts to bowhead whale mothers with calves," said Deirdre McDonnell, Earthjustice attorney who argued today's motion.
Shell had been granted permission by the MMS to drill as many as four wells this year, some just offshore from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area kept off-limits to major mineral exploration despite continued efforts of the Bush administration to open it up to such activities.
"Shell would start its exploratory drilling right at the peak of bowhead whale migration through the Beaufort Sea," said David Gordon, Executive Director of Pacific Environment. "We think it's important for the court to continue its 'time out' for Shell to protect the whales while it reviews the merits of the case."
In addition to bowhead whales, the drilling plan threatens polar bears, beluga whales and the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"If polar bears are to survive as the Arctic melts in the face of global warming, we need to protect their critical habitat, not turn it into a polluted industrial zone, " said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity.
A decision on continuing the preliminary relief entered by the court in July is expected soon.
Groups represented by Earthjustice are the Alaska Wilderness League, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pacific Environment, Center for Biological Diversity, and Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL).
Deirdre McDonnel, Earthjustice, (907) 586-2751
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