Alaska Native and conservation groups today cheered the end of a successful legal challenge that stopped Shell Oil from hastily drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit dismissed the case after Shell Offshore, Inc., withdrew the drilling plan. The court had earlier issued a preliminary injunction stopping oil drilling in the Beaufort Sea for the past two summers. The Bush administration approved the drilling plan without a full environmental review.
The groups opposed the drilling plan because large-scale industrial activities threatened Native subsistence users and endangered bowhead whales, polar bears, and other marine animals in coastal waters just off the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Even though its prior plan was stopped by court order, Shell has proposed a new, expanded plan to drill in 2010 not only in the Beaufort Sea, but also in the neighboring Chukchi Sea. Both are important habitat for the endangered bowhead whale. The new drilling plan poses the same threats to important arctic animals and habitats and would put wells just offshore of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Native and conservation groups are hopeful that the Obama administration will conduct a rigorous environmental review, including a full environmental impact statement, before permitting any drilling in the Arctic and will use this process to balance competing concerns.
Shell's new plan includes drilling right in the middle of the bowhead's migration corridor and important Alaska Native subsistence hunting areas. The industrial activity is proposed when mothers and calf whales, some of the most sensitive members of the population, are present.
"If drilling is allowed, there's a good chance it will interfere with the subsistence hunt, scare whales away from important feeding areas, and potentially separate dependant calves from their mothers," said Deirdre McDonnell of Earthjustice.
"The federal government shouldn't rubber stamp drilling plans without knowing the potential consequences," said David Dickson, Director of the Oceans Program for the Alaska Wilderness League. "We hope the Obama administration takes this opportunity to base development decisions in the Arctic on sound science. We urge them to conduct a thorough scientific review of Shell's new drilling plans."
"Shell still does not have the ability to clean up an oil spill in arctic waters and ice," said Whit Sheard "The new drilling plan for the Arctic Ocean poses the same unacceptable risk of oil spills."
The Arctic is undergoing major shifts due to climate change. Summer sea ice is retreating rapidly -- reaching record low levels during the past two summers. The changes raise major concerns about the survival of wildlife -- such as the polar bear -- that call the Arctic home. Now the Obama administration will have a chance to revisit these issues.
"We simply can't allow giveaways to Big Oil, such as the 70 million acres offered in the Arctic, to pass for an energy policy -- especially in an area where our addiction to fossil fuels is already endangering wildlife and threatening traditional communities," said Trish Rolfe of the Sierra Club in Alaska.
"If polar bears and other ice-dependent species are to survive as the Arctic melts in the face of global warming, we need to protect their critical habitat, not turn it into an industrial zone," said Rebecca Noblin of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Groups challenging the permit were the Alaska Wilderness League, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pacific Environment, Center for Biological Diversity, and Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), all represented by Earthjustice. The North Slope Borough and Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission also challenged the drilling plan.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit blocked oil drilling activity since July 2007, when it entered a preliminary order stopping the three-year plan. Alaska Native organizations and conservation groups had sued to halt drilling in the face of rushed approval by the Bush administration.
The court initially made a finding that drilling opponents were likely to succeed in their challenge, and issued a preliminary injunction stopping the drilling pending its decision on the merits of the case. After considering the merits, the court issued a decision striking down the plan. The court later withdrew its opinion, indicating it would replace it with a new opinion and leaving the initial order stopping the drilling in place. Then last month, Shell withdrew its controversial plan before the court could enter a new opinion on the merits.
Deirdre McDonnell, Earthjustice, (971) 255-0966
Trish Rolfe, Sierra Club, (907) 276-4044
David Dickson, Alaska Wilderness League, (202) 544-5205
Whit Sheard, Pacific Environment, (907) 982-7095
Rebecca Noblin, Center for Biological Diversity, (907) 274-1110
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