Time Out on Arctic Offshore Oil Drilling Needed

Conservation and Alaska Native groups head to federal court in legal challenge to Shell Oil plans to drill in the Arctic Ocean this July


Jared Saylor, Earthjustice (202) 667-4500, ext. x213 

Thirteen Alaska Native and conservation groups represented by Earthjustice are heading to federal court today to argue a legal challenge against the federal government’s October and December 2009 approvals of exploratory oil drilling plans for the Shell Oil Company in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The approvals authorize Shell to begin drilling as early as July.

The lawsuit, filed last January, is especially timely as the recent exploration oil rig disaster and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrates that offshore oil drilling is fraught with potential dangers. There is no demonstrated or reliable way to contain and clean up a large spill in the harsh and remote Arctic waters. A blowout like the one that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico would have catastrophic impacts on fish and wildlife in the region. Alaska Native communities rely on subsistence fishing, whaling, and hunting in this area. 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.

The Department of the Interior’s Minerals and Management Service (MMS) approved Shell’s plans without an adequate analysis of the potential effects of the drilling on endangered bowhead whales, walrus, or people in the region. MMS declined to evaluate the impacts of a large oil spill from Shell’s drilling because it concluded the possibility of a spill is too small to justify analysis. The Gulf of Mexico blowout and spill, which occurred at a state-of-the-art drilling rig, currently stretches across 20,000 square miles, is now out of control and continues to leak at a rate of at least 5,000 barrels per day, demonstrates that oil spills can and do happen during exploration drilling.

Shell’s oil drilling, some of which will take place on controversial leases sold under the Bush administration and upheld by the Obama administration in March, will result in a 514-foot long drill ship and an armada of support vessels and aircraft in the icy and dangerous waters of the Arctic Ocean. One of the groups involved in the lawsuit, the Native Village of Point Hope, is a federally recognized native tribe located in the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. Community members rely on subsistence use of Arctic animals such as bowhead whale, seals, walrus, fish and more.

“The Arctic Ocean is our garden, and we depend upon it for our subsistence way of life. Our hearts go out to the residents of the Gulf of Mexico — the spill there threatens to devastate their lives. A spill here, where it would be even harder to clean up, would devastate our garden and our thousand-year-old subsistence traditions. Shell’s drilling is just too risky,” said Caroline Cannon, President of the Native Village of Point Hope.

“Any industrial activity in the Arctic Ocean, including exploratory drilling, must proceed with great caution. We must wait until we are fully informed of the potential consequences to the Arctic Ocean and surrounding coasts, and to the people who survive off its bounty,” said David Dickson, Western Arctic and Oceans Program Director for Alaska Wilderness League. “The Deepwater Horizon tragedy has reminded us that we cannot merely rely on assurances from industry and the Minerals Management Service.”

“The disaster unfolding in the Gulf provides gruesome proof that drilling our oceans for oil is inherently dangerous. For polar bears struggling to make it in a rapidly changing Arctic environment, an oil spill like the one in the Gulf could mean the difference between survival and extinction. Given the oil industry’s proven inability to stop, contain, or clean up offshore oil spills, it is time for the Obama administration to step back from its headlong rush to drill in the Arctic,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska Director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“As the tragedy unfolding in the Gulf has very clearly demonstrated, the time to test a back-up plan or safety technology is before drilling starts, not once a spill has occurred. Oil companies must not be allowed to operate in areas as ecologically fragile as the Arctic, particularly when there are no proven, effective spill safeguards in place,” said Karla Dutton, Alaska director of Defenders of Wildlife.

“This administration needs to take a time out on offshore oil drilling,” said Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe. “The Gulf tragedy demonstrates that drilling for oil off our coasts poses serious threats to our environment. A full environmental analysis, guided by sound science and the acquisition of missing information is needed before Shell’s oil drilling operations are allowed to proceed in the Arctic Ocean.”

“Shell must not be allowed to drill exploratory wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas this summer. A blow out like the one that just happened with Deepwater Horizon would likely destroy the subsistence way of life for thousands of Alaska Natives and kill thousands of marine mammals including polar bears, walrus, whales, seals and many species of sea birds. Because of the remote location, the ice and severe cold, a slick like the one we are seeing in the Gulf of Mexico right now would be almost impossible to contain or clean up,” said Charles Clusen, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Alaska project director.

“Shell’s drilling brings with it the risk of large oil spills, and the impacts of a potential blowout spill were not addressed by MMS. Chronic spills are a fact of life from oil and gas operations on Alaska’s North Slope, where over 6,000 spills have occurred since 1996. In the icy conditions of the Arctic Ocean, there is no way to effectively clean up spilled oil,” said Pamela A. Miller, Alaska Program Director for Northern Alaska Environmental Center.

“There can be no compromise on clean air and clean water,” said Michael LeVine, Pacific Senior Counsel for Oceana. “As we clearly see from the tragedy in the Gulf this week, there is no going back if equipment fails. Shell has no magic solution to protect the Arctic Ocean if the same thing happens in Alaska.”

“When the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded, sank, and created an oil slick covering hundreds of square miles on the surface of the ocean, it made crystal clear exactly why we’re calling for a time-out on such activities in the Arctic — a much more fragile, harsh, and remote environment where cleanup and response capacity exist largely on paper,” said Stan Senner, Director of Conservation Science at the Ocean Conservancy.

“In the Gulf of Mexico, the lives and livelihoods of coastal residents, fishers, oyster farmers, shrimpers and all those that love the marshes and coasts, have been irrevocably changed,” said Carole Holley, Alaska Program Co-Director for Pacific Environment.  “While we can’t reverse the oil industry’s and the federal government’s negligence in the Gulf, we can ensure that the same devastating events are not repeated in the Arctic, destroying the rich ecology and culture of the Inupiat.”

“REDOIL is a plaintiff in this lawsuit to support Inupiat who are concerned about the subsistence resources in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and the impacts to their subsistence way of life. We feel that MMS approved Shell’s drilling without fully analyzing and disclosing the risks and potential impacts. An oil spill like the current Gulf spill would have devastating consequences for years to come, especially since there is no way to clean up oil in the icy Arctic Ocean. The potential harm from development within the Beaufort and Chukchi seas far outweigh any benefits. The risks for coastal communities are unacceptable. U.S. energy policy should not put indigenous cultures and their way of life at risk, and the courts should uphold and honor subsistence rights as well,” said Faith Gemmill, Executive Director of REDOIL, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands.

“The recent disaster in the Gulf makes it clear that we need to take a timeout on offshore drilling, especially in the area at most immediate threat of new drilling — America’s Arctic. Rather than drilling in the Arctic Ocean and surrounding coasts to solve America ‘s energy problems, we must embrace responsible measures and real 21st Century sustainable energy solutions that make cars go farther, promote conservation, invest in clean, renewable energy, and protect our natural heritage,” said Dan Ritzman, Alaska Program Director for the Sierra Club.

“Off-shore oil development in remote Arctic waters is far too risky to be prudent to pursue at this time, and the Gulf spill is an example of this truth,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, acting regional director of The Wilderness Society’s Alaska office.  “The Obama administration needs to take a time out on offshore oil exploration and development in the Arctic in order to ensure the protection of native cultures, wildlife and Arctic ecosystems. The oil and gas industry continues to say that spills are rare and can be controlled through safeguards, but their track record reveals a far different reality.”

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