Case Number # 1939
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.