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Fueling the Fire: Shell's Oil Drilling in the Arctic Ocean

Case Overview

These oil platforms in Cook Inlet, AK, are what we could expect to see in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas if oil development projects proceed.
(Photo: © Florian Schulz /

Alaska's Arctic Ocean has been under constant pressure in recent years as a rapidly warming climate continues to melt the sea ice that for millennia has supported Arctic species—polar bear, Pacific walrus, seals and whales—and the associated Alaska native cultures in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

At the same time, the Arctic Ocean has been increasingly opened to oil and gas activities with massive lease sales, including one in the Chukchi Sea offering an area nearly the size of Connecticut to oil companies, and the permitting of deafening seismic exploration for oil throughout the Arctic Ocean, further stressing the region's wildlife and people. Big Oil's push to drill in the Arctic Ocean has also been relentless.

Since 2007, Shell Oil has been trying to rush through risky exploration drilling proposals for the Beaufort, and more recently, Chukchi seas. Earthjustice's work, including litigation, has so far helped slow this rush to drill before full and public environmental analysis is conducted and adequate plans to prevent and clean up an oil spill are put in place.

Most recently, in late 2009, the Department of Interior approved plans by Shell Oil Company to drill for oil in the summer of 2010 in both the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, including just offshore the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This would have been the first offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean in many years. Under these plans, Shell's 514-foot-long drill ship and an armada of support vessels and aircraft would patrol both seas, emit tons of pollutants, including heat-trapping gases and black carbon, into the air, and risk a large oil spill that could not be cleaned up in the Arctic’s icy seas. Noise from drilling activities and vessel and aircraft traffic would threaten harm to endangered bowhead whales and other marine mammals. An oil spill from a well blowout could have devastating effects on this sensitive ecosystem and on the subsistence culture of the Alaska Native coastal communities. The effects of Shell’s drilling were not properly analyzed before Department of Interior approved Shell's plans.

Earthjustice, on behalf of several conservation and Alaska Native groups, is challenged the approvals in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. On May 27, 2010, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Secretary Salazar postponed issuance of the final permits Shell required for drilling during summer 2010. In the fall, Shell requested approval of a final permit from the Department of Interior that would allow the oil giant to drill in the Beaufort Sea in summer 2011. In March 2011, in an abrupt reversal, Shell announced that it will forego all Arctic Ocean drilling in 2011, acknowledging that it had not obtained the permits and authorizations it needed to drill.

Case Updates

December 17, 2014 | Blog Post

Shell Doubles Down After Criminal Action

As Shell's operator pleads guilty for a 2012 drilling mess, the oil company is already gearing up to drill again with the same operator and an even bigger and dirtier drilling plan.

April 10, 2013 | Blog Post

ConocoPhillips Surrenders on Arctic Ocean Drilling

Thanks in part to pressure brought on by Earthjustice litigation, another oil giant has announced no drilling in the Arctic—underscoring the need to permanently protect the region and its inhabitants from reckless oil development.

March 7, 2013 | In the News: Summit County Citizens Voice

Shell to ‘pause’ Arctic offshore drilling program

Royal Dutch Shell announced it will suspend all activity in the Arctic for 2013. The oil giant endured many embarrassing and costly accidents while drilling exploratory wells off the north coast of Alaska in 2012. Both of the Arctic drill rigs will be traveling to Asia for repairs sustained during the severe weather common to the Arctic.

February 28, 2013 | Blog Post

A Wise Pause On Arctic Drilling

Shell announced that the company is hitting the pause button on oil exploration and drilling in the Arctic. Mother Nature graphically demonstrated this summer what conservation groups have been saying for more than a decade—the extreme weather and conditions of the Arctic, with its stormy, frozen seas make the Arctic environmentally treacherous for oil drilling.

January 4, 2013 | Blog Post

Shell's Drill Rigs Requiring Extra Federal Attention

With one Arctic drill rig shipwrecked on an Alaskan island and the other reportedly under criminal investigation for possibly “operating with serious safety and pollution control problems,” oil giant Royal Dutch Shell is doing a pretty thorough job at proving the quest for oil in the pristine waters of America’s Arctic is just too dangerous, too dirty, and too damaging. The week’s events also prove once again that the U.S. Department of Interior should not have approved drilling in the most remote, dangerous place on the planet.

December 20, 2012 | Blog Post

Strong Start To Protecting Key Alaska Habitat

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar recently announced a final plan for managing the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a vast and wild area in northwestern Alaska that provides vital habitat for caribou, countless shorebirds, waterfowl, bears, wolves and wolverines, among others.

July 5, 2012 | Feature

Florian Schulz on Icy Adventures and Arctic Stressors

In this episode, Earthjustice content producer Jessica Knoblauch speaks with Florian Schulz, a professional nature and wildlife photographer whose striking images have garnered international recognition. Recently, Schulz released his latest book, To the Arctic, a collection of large-format photographs that offer a glimpse into a world that most people will never see, and one that is rapidly changing.

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