Alaska Natives in Court to Prevent Oil Spill in Arctic

Alarmed by Gulf spill, they are determined to protect their home waters

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All too aware of the oil spill disaster playing out in the Gulf, Native Alaskans are in court today, determined to keep the same thing from happening in Arctic waters they call home.

Timing is critical, as Shell Oil is poised to start drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas as early as July. Represented by Earthjustice, the 13 Native Alaskan and conservation groups are hoping to convince a federal court that the federal government illegally granted Shell a permit to drill.

There are strong similarities between what Shell plans in the Arctic and what British Petroleum did in the Gulf. Like the residents in four gulf coast states, Alaska Natives rely on ocean bounty. A blowout like the one that occurred in the Gulf would have catastrophic impacts on fishing, whaling, and hunting in their homeland.

Especially chilling is the inability of the oil industry—clearly demonstrated by the Gulf spill—to prevent or deal with offshore oil spills. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen said in a field hearing in Alaska that the lack of capacity to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic could spell disaster for the pristine waters of the Arctic Ocean.

In court, the native groups are targeting the federal Minerals Management Service for downplaying the possibility of a large oil spill, and failing to adequately assess the potential impact of a spill on wildlife and people. Their argument echoes how BP convinced the federal government that the chances of a Gulf spill were "insignificant," and that it had the means to deal with any spill.

From 2006–2014, Terry was managing editor for Earthjustice's blog, online monthly newsletter and print Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.