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Challenging Shell’s Inadequate Oil Spill Response Plans

Endangered bowhead whales in the Arctic.

Endangered bowhead whales in the Arctic.

NOAA Photo

What's at Stake

The Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas support thriving, diverse ecosystems that teem with life, but this extraordinary part of the world is threatened by Shell’s attempts to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean’s remote, icy waters.

Case Overview

Earthjustice represented several clients in challenging the federal government’s approvals of Shell Oil’s spill response plans for the Arctic Ocean. Earthjustice brought the challenge in the Alaska District Court in July 2012. The lawsuit focused on two spill plans—the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas spill plans—but ultimately it addressed requirements that apply nationwide. This case brought into focus the recognition that the federal government must ensure an oil company is prepared to clean up an oil spill before the spill happens, especially in locations as remote and challenging as the Arctic Ocean.

Specifically, the case challenged the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s determination that the spill plans satisfy the statutory standard that Shell must prove the company is ready to cleanup a “worst case” oil spill to the “maximum extent practicable” in “adverse weather conditions.”

The case also challenged the agency’s failure to conduct any NEPA environmental review or engage in ESA consultation before approving the plans to understand the consequences of the spill response choices. For example, the agency should have considered the effects of Shell’s proposal to apply chemical dispersants in the Arctic Ocean, including threats to fish, birds, and marine mammals, including the endangered bowhead whale.

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.”

Case ID


Case Updates

September 28, 2015 | Feature

Frozen Treasure: Defending the Arctic

The Arctic is a thriving, diverse landscape filled with life. There is currently no offshore oil and gas development in America’s Arctic Ocean. And for the sake of our warming world and irreplaceable species, there should never be.

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.

August 6, 2013 | In the News: Bloomberg News

Shell’s Spill Plans for Arctic Are Upheld by Judge

A federal judge in Anchorage upheld oil spill plans for drilling in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas submitted by Shell Oil, despite a challenge issued by a coalition of conservation organizations. The coalition, represented by Earthjustice, had charged the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement of conducting a flawed approval process and disregarding the terms of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

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.

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.

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