Arctic Ocean Oil Drilling Challenged

Permit given without proper assessment of harms to Natives, wildlife


Faith Gemmill, REDOIL, (907) 750-0188
Robert Thompson, Inupiat, (907) 640-6119
Doreen Simmonds, Inupiat, (907) 852-2554
Betsy Goll, Alaska Wilderness League, (907) 830-0184
Whit Sheard, Pacific Environment, (907) 277-1029
Deirdre McDonnell, Earthjustice, (907) 586-2751
Julia Bovey, NRDC, (202) 289-2420

Native group and five conservation organizations filed challenges Monday to a federal agency’s recent decision allowing Shell Offshore Inc. to drill oil wells in the Beaufort Sea near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge beginning in June.

Despite the threat oil drilling poses to the sensitive Arctic ecosystem, the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS) approved the plan through a rushed process without fully analyzing the potential impacts, and without conducting a public process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  MMS refused, for example, to consider the potential for an accidental spill of crude oil.

“Given the resources at stake and the potentially devastating effects this drilling could have on bowhead whales, seals, birds and fish, it is unacceptable for the government to rush this through without a thorough public review of the impacts. The subsistence rights of the communities are being ignored and Shell’s plans will violate their rights,” said Faith Gemmill of REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands). “REDOIL members living in the villages of Nuiqsut, Kaktovik, and Barrow depend on the Beaufort Sea for their livelihood.  Why did MMS disregard this?” 

“As a mother and a grandmother, I am concerned that the Arctic Inupiat whaling culture is at risk because the MMS insists rushing ahead with offshore oil plans. The government of the people, in helping the industry drill for oil at all costs, is disregarding the future of the Arctic people. They are doing this with an outdated Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and without proper input from the public. The Arctic community revolves around the whaling way of life; there is not one facet of the ecosystem of the Arctic that does not concern the catching of the whale. Considering the movement of the ocean ice, there is too big of a risk that an oil spill will occur, therefore creating a risk of destroying the Inupiat culture,” said Doreen Simmonds, Inupiat resident of Barrow and REDOIL member.

Not only did MMS completely fail to analyze potentially devastating oil spills, its rushed process did not include a full analysis of the significant harms that can be caused by routine drilling operations in the Arctic environment. The drilling involves two massive drill ships accompanied by ice breakers, support vessels, and air support. This level of industrial activity in the Beaufort threatens the endangered bowhead whale, polar bears and birds, including threatened Steller’s and spectacled eiders. Additionally, the constant air traffic associated with drilling can disturb caribou and interfere with the subsistence hunt. 

“I am an Inupiat hunter and whaler. Due to the fact that there is potential for catastrophic results from Shell’s activities on our subsistence livelihood, my people are very concerned about the plans that MMS agreed to without any public input, the Environmental Assessment (EA) was inadequate, and by law under NEPA — an EIS is required. There is a great lack of adequate spill response strategies in Shell’s proposed plans, as well as the fact that no tests have been done in Arctic ice to provide data about toxic spills in our ocean and no answers provided when we ask how long would the toxins remain if spilled? All of our subsistence resources will be impacted from land to sea — from the caribou to the whale. Why are we given less voice than other peoples in the lower 48-where offshore plans have been cancelled due to the public outcry?,” said Robert Thompson, Inupiat resident of Kaktovik and REDOIL member.

The groups are also concerned about impacts of the drilling plan on sensitive areas like the nearby coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “Clearly some folks in Washington fail to realize that what happens in the Beaufort Sea — where the government says Shell can drill — is 100 percent interdependent with what happens in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  If oil gets into the Beaufort Sea — animals in the refuge will suffer. That’s not acceptable, and it defeats the purpose of having a wildlife refuge at all, frankly,” Chuck Clusen, Senior Policy Analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council said.

“Off-shore oil and gas activity creates a huge web of impacts not only limited to open-water. With daily helicopter flights, increased infrastructure on and off-land, stress to marine and terrestrial life from harmful seismic and other damaging exploration methods, and no proven methods for safe and effective clean up of an oil-spill disaster in arctic conditions, off-shore oil and gas activity in the Arctic Ocean is a serious threat to America’s entire arctic coast line, and critical areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” said Betsy Goll, Arctic Environmental Justice Program Director of Alaska Wilderness League.

“Unfortunately, disregard for the significant impacts of oil development to endangered whales, critical habitats, and cultural sovereignty are standard protocol in the oil industry these days,” said Whit Sheard, Alaska Program Director for Pacific Environment. “Shell’s Sakhalin II in the Russian North Pacific has become one of the most controversial offshore drilling projects in the world and is a painful preview of what’s coming to our Arctic coastline.”

“In its rush to approve operations this year, MMS failed to meet its obligations under the law to take a hard look at all the impacts of oil drilling in this sensitive environment and on the people who depend on it,” said Deirdre McDonnell, staff attorney at Earthjustice. “We filed these challenges to force the agency follow the law and involve the public in its decisions.”

The challenges were filed by the non-profit law firm Earthjustice with the Interior Board of Land Appeals and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of REDOIL, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, NRDC, Alaska Wilderness League, and Pacific Environment. 

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