Gearing Up for the Latest Arctic Fight

On Monday, the Department of the Interior conditionally approved Shell Oil’s multi-year plan to drill for oil in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea.

Kayaktivists rally against Shell Oil and Arctic drilling in the Port of Seattle.
Kayaktivists rally against Shell Oil and Arctic drilling in the Port of Seattle. (Charles Conatzer & the sHellNo! Action Council/Flickr)

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Last week brought bad news for the Arctic Ocean. On Monday, the Department of the Interior conditionally approved Shell Oil’s multi-year plan to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea. While Shell still needs to clear some hurdles before it can drill, Monday’s approval essentially gives it the green light to sink its wells in search of the next big oil field in one of the worst places on Earth to search for oil—the pristine and fragile Arctic ocean ecosystem. 

The drilling could start as early as July of this year.

Shell’s drilling would be a massive industrial undertaking, with two drilling rigs and an armada of ships, icebreakers, helicopters and airplanes. It would introduce noise and disturbance, air and water pollution, and it runs the risk of a catastrophic oil spill that could not be contained or cleaned in the region.  It also takes us in exactly the wrong direction on addressing runaway climate change.

Earthjustice has been and continues to be at the forefront of the fight to protect the Arctic Ocean from such rushed, risky and ultimately ill-conceived oil drilling.  As last week’s decision shows, this is not an easy fight.

But there is a silver lining to last week’s dark news. More than ever, the agency’s decision to approve Arctic Ocean oil drilling is being met with widespread, loud, articulate and creative expressions of dismay. Much of the outcry centers on concerns about the incompatibility of Arctic Ocean drilling and efforts to slow climate change. There is widespread scientific consensus that we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground and undeveloped if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change.  A recent letter in the journal Nature concluded that “all Arctic resources should be considered as unburnable” if we want to keep global temperature rise below the 2 degrees Celsius tipping point. As pieces in the New York Times and elsewhere reacting to the decision demonstrated, people everywhere are recognizing these truths, taking action and demanding that our government do the same.  

Nowhere is this energy more evident than in Seattle, where Shell wants to create a home-base for its Arctic drilling armada. There, the port’s furtive decision to approve a lease that would let Shell use a cargo terminal for its drilling rigs has been met with loud opposition. The city’s residents, its council and most recently its mayor are against Shell’s plan to set up shop in the city’s waters. Earthjustice is in the middle of this fight as well. We are in court challenging the Port of Seattle for exempting Shell from state environmental laws when it decided to allow Shell to use the cargo terminal for its drilling fleet. 

Undeterred—and shamelessly flouting the law—Shell this week brought a massive drilling rig and assorted other ships into the Port of Seattle. The ships were met by peaceful protesters on the water—“kayaktivists”—drawing widespread media attention and once again raising the stakes even further. On Saturday, hundreds took to the water in protest of Shell’s drilling plans and its use of Seattle as a home-port. For Shell to make Seattle its home-port, it needs the port to hide the deal from the public, circumvent environmental laws and violate zoning permits, and Shell has to defy the requests of its business partner, which asked it to stay away pending resolution of legal questions.

The fight to protect the Arctic Ocean will not be easy, quick or without its setbacks. Big Oil and its anti-environmental allies are powerful forces. But if last week’s loud public reaction to Shell’s plan to drill and the energetic Seattle opposition to using the city as Shell’s home-port are any sign, there is a lot of hope that we can win this fight in the long run. And, as we have done for nearly a decade, Earthjustice will be there, holding the line in court when drilling decisions violate the law and working with our partners to steer our leaders toward a path that protects the wonders of the Arctic for future generations. 

We have worked successfully to slow the rush to drill offshore in the Arctic since George W. Bush threw open the gates to Arctic Ocean oil drilling late in his presidency. Then, as now, Shell Oil was the main protagonist. In 2007, it received quick approval of a drilling plan for the Beaufort Sea after cursory, non-public review by the Bush Interior Department.  In 2008, it acquired the lion’s share of oil leases sold in a massive lease in the Chukchi Sea. The oil giant has been coming on strong ever since. 

But our work with our partners in the courts, before administrative agencies, and elsewhere—challenging drilling plans, air permits and lease sales that violated bedrock environmental laws—has kept Shell from sinking a single well in the Arctic Ocean so far, save limited preparatory work in a 2012, which itself did not go well. Our challenge to the 2008 Chukchi Sea lease sale resulted in courts twice sending the sale back to the Department of the Interior for reconsideration, keeping on the table the fundamental question of whether the Chukchi Sea should be open for oil in the first place. 

We remain in court today. We’re fighting to ensure that oil spill prevention and clean-up plans are credible and that their impacts and effectiveness are vetted fully. And we’re fighting to ensure the government does not short-cut the strong laws that protect marine mammals like walruses from industrial threats like drilling. 

As of last week, we find ourselves once again at the precipice of Arctic Ocean drilling. We will continue to engage in and assess the government’s Arctic offshore planning, permitting and leasing decisions—including its decision to let Shell start drilling this summer—to make sure they comply with the law. And, as we’ve shown again and again, we will not shy away from going to court if they do not.  

As the deputy managing attorney of Earthjustice’s Alaska regional office, Erik’s work focuses on protecting the Arctic’s irreplaceable federal lands, waters, and wildlife from oil development.

Established in 1987, Earthjustice's Northwest Regional Office has been at the forefront of many of the most significant legal decisions safeguarding the Pacific Northwest’s imperiled species, ancient forests, and waterways.