Shell Offshore Inc. -- which was on the verge of oil exploration in the Beaufort Sea -- cannot proceed until the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decides whether environmental harms were properly considered by the federal agency that gave Shell an exploration permit.
A coalition of Native Alaskans and conservation groups had sued to halt the drilling on concerns that such large-scale industrial activities would threaten endangered bowhead whales, polar bears and other marine animals in coastal waters just off the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. The groups challenged the permit issued by the federal Mineral Management Service on grounds that the agency failed to conduct proper assessment of environmental impacts.
The court, which had temporarily halted exploration last month at the groups' request, said today it would keep the injunction against exploration in place until the court resolves challenges to the agency's environmental review. The court put resolution of the case on a fast track.
The court order concludes that the petitioners "have shown a probability of success on the merits" and "the balance of hardships tips sharply in their favor."
Noise from exploration activities will disturb bowhead whale migration and feeding in the Beaufort. Also at risk from disturbance and potential oil spills are polar bears and a variety of other animals, including the threatened Steller's and spectacled eiders.
"The cost of drilling will lay with the local communities when the effects are seen on a daily life basis affecting our lives and our health," commented Rosemary Ahtuangaruk, an Inupiat resident of Nuiqsut, a community near the proposed Shell lease area, and member of Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (Redoil).
"The agency's own scientists have warned that this type of activity could threaten serious impacts to bowhead whale mothers with calves," said Deirdre McDonnell, Earthjustice attorney.
Shell had been granted permission by the MMS to drill as many as four wells this year, some just offshore from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area kept off-limits to major mineral exploration despite continued efforts of the Bush administration to open it up to such activities.
"Shell would have started its exploratory drilling right at the peak of bowhead whale migration through the Beaufort Sea," said David Gordon, Executive Director of Pacific Environment. "We think it's important for the court to continue its 'time out' for Shell to protect the whales while it reviews the merits of the case."
In addition to bowhead whales, the drilling plan threatens polar bears, beluga whales and the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"If polar bears are to survive as the Arctic melts in the face of global warming, we need to protect their critical habitat, not turn it into a polluted industrial zone," said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Groups represented by Earthjustice are the Alaska Wilderness League, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pacific Environment, Center for Biological Diversity, and Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (Redoil).
Rachel James, Pacific Environment, (907) 952-0143
Deirdre McDonnell, Earthjustice, (907)723-3200
Brendan Cummings, Center for Biological Diversity, (951) 768-8301
Jack Schaefer, Pt. Hope Tribal Council Member and member of Redoil, (907) 368-2453
Emma Kinneeveak, Native Village of Pt. Hope and member of Redoil, (907) 368-2330