Earthjustice Sues To Stop Drilling In Arctic Ocean

What wasn't said in Copenhagen: native people fear consequences

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Last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told the world from the Copenhagen Climate Conference how U.S. public lands, which include the continental shelves off our coastlines, are being managed by the government to reduce climate pollution. What he didn’t say was that he had recently approved oil drilling permits allowing Shell Oil to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean, including one site 20 miles offshore of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

He didn’t tell the world about the fear of some like Robert Thompson, who lives in the Arctic Ocean village of Kaktovik. Thompson worries that an oil spill in Arctic water in front of his village would be impossible to clean up, and many experts agree. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen noted in a recent hearing in Alaska that this lack of capacity to clean up a spill in the Arctic could spell disaster for its pristine waters.

Thompson worries because native people living along Alaska’s Arctic Ocean coastline rely on the ocean for their food. They hunt whale, duck and other marine wildlife to feed their families and pass their culture from one generation to the next. An oil spill could destroy their way of life.

On behalf of Robert Thompson and others like him, as well as conservationists across the country, Earthjustice filed a legal challenge to the drilling permit.

Before the drilling can begin, other federal agencies need to grant their approval too. But some, notably the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have suggested that too little is known about the remote Arctic and that the stakes are too high to allow oil drilling. They suggest a more cautious approach.

Hopefully, between the Earthjustice legal challenge and the skepticism over drilling coming from other federal agencies, the drilling can be stopped.

John was Earthjustice’s Media Director and chief press wrangler from 2001 until 2013. He came to Earthjustice in 2001 to defend freshwaters and public land—and salmon.