Court Upholds Shell’s Oil Spill Plans Despite Serious Questions

Federal agency allowed to ignore NEPA and ESA


Holly Harris, Earthjustice, (907) 500-7133


Miyoko Sakashita, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 632-5308


Dan Ritzman, Sierra Club, (206) 378-0114 ext. 311


Susan Murray, Oceana, (907) 321-8318


Jim Wintering, Ocean Conservancy, (330) 256-5251


Faith Gemmill, REDOIL, (907) 750-0188


Gwen Dobbs, Alaska Wilderness League, (202) 544-5205


Dan Howells, Greenpeace, (202) 306-8966


Kevin Harun, Pacific Environment, (907) 440-2443


Beth Peluso, National Audubon Society, (907) 276-7034


Bob Keefe, Natural Resources Defense Council, (202) 289-2373

The U.S. District Court in Alaska ruled the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement complied with the law when it approved Shell Oil’s plans for preventing and cleaning up an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The decision, issued yesterday, stems from a lawsuit filed by a coalition of conservation organizations made up of the Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Ocean Conservancy, Oceana, Pacific Environment, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), and Sierra Club.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, represented the organizations. The organizations issue the following statement:

“Yesterday’s ruling is just the first step in protecting the Arctic Ocean from the devastating effects of oil spills.  The ruling doesn’t change the fact that, as Shell’s misadventures last year showed, the Arctic Ocean is no place for rosy-eyed optimism.  In fact, until and unless clean-up technology has been proven effective, reliable, and benign in the Arctic, it’s no place to drill at all.  It is time for the Administration to reassess whether to allow offshore drilling in this pristine environment in the first place

Yesterday’s ruling upholds spill plans based on Shell Oil’s assumption that it will clean up 95 percent of any spilled oil before it contacts the shoreline—a level of success that  has never before been achieved.  Even in the Gulf of Mexico, with easy access to substantial response resources, skimming recovery efforts during the Deepwater Horizon disaster recovered just three percent of the total amount of oil released.  The ruling also validates the government’s decision not to follow either the National Environmental Policy Act or the Endangered Species Act before it approved the plans.

We brought this case to ensure that industry and regulators meet the law’s requirements to ask tough questions and reach defensible positions before companies are allowed to drill—and to ensure that operators are prepared to mount an effective cleanup in the event of a spill. The court’s decision is a setback, but we will continue to push for responsible planning and stringent enforcement of legal protections.

As Shell’s problems in 2012 showed clearly, oil companies are not prepared to drill in the Arctic Ocean.  The announcements that Shell, ConocoPhillips, and other companies have announced that they will not seek to drill exploration wells this year provides an opportunity to revisit the pre-Deepwater Horizon regulations and requirements that govern important protections, like spill plans.”

Organization Quotes

“We can all agree that we want oil companies to have sufficient resources and realistic plans to cleanup an oil spill,” said Earthjustice Attorney Holly Harris. “Yesterday, the first court to address the issue said the spill plans were sufficient, but this is only the beginning of the effort to define the obligations to address oil spill prevention and response, especially in remote, isolated areas like the Arctic Ocean.”

“Last summer when the veneer of empty promises and fanciful reassurances was peeled back, the dirty reality of Arctic oil drilling appeared: harsh weather, equipment failures, human error and legal violations all characterized Shell’s 2012 drilling season,” said Rebecca Noblin, Center for Biological Diversity Alaska Director.  “Despite this court’s decision, we will continue to do everything we can to protect the Arctic from unsafe drilling.”

“Climate change already threatens the Arctic’s rich array of wildlife, as well as the traditional practices of Alaska Natives who have lived there for millennia.  Yesterday’s decision by the Court allows Big Oil to pile on to those threats by allowing Big Oil to put this remarkable landscape at risk to oil spills and industrialization as well,” said Dan Ritzman, Sierra Club’s Alaska Program Director. “We should not allow dirty and dangerous oil drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas to pile yet more risk onto this vibrant but fragile region.”

“Shell’s plans are based on unrealistic assumptions and unproven technologies.  If these plans satisfy the law, then the law is broken.  Particularly after the disastrous 2012 season, the government cannot simply take Shell’s word that the company is prepared,” said Susan Murray, Oceana’s Deputy Vice President, Pacific.  “Instead, government decision-makers must insist that companies prove they can operate safely and without harming the ocean ecosystem before allowing exploration in the Arctic Ocean.”

“We all know that oil and water don’t mix, and that’s especially true in the Arctic. The court’s decision doesn’t alter the reality that any oil spill response in the Arctic will be incredibly difficult,” said Andrew Hartsig, Arctic Program Director for Ocean Conservancy. “After Shell’s troubled 2012 season, there is no doubt of the need to reconsider whether and how oil companies can meet their obligation to operate safely and responsibly in the Arctic.”

“It is mindboggling that the court does not recognize the risk that will ensue with Shell’s offshore drilling program moving forward with such an ineffective spill plan. There is absolutely no way that Shell can operate in the Arctic under the cover of darkness, severe cold weather, perilous storms and broken ice conditions in a safe way, I also seriously question how they can justify a massive drilling program that violates the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.   Though we are not happy with the decision, we will continue to support the Inupiat that oppose Shell’s drilling program, and we will continue to advocate for a moratorium on offshore drilling in Arctic waters due to the serious risk to Inupiat subsistence rights, health and well being,” said Faith Gemmill, Executive Director of Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands.

“We are disappointed in Yesterday’s decision,” said Cindy Shogan, Executive Director, Alaska Wilderness League. “Shell’s claims that they can ‘encounter’ spilled oil instead of actually cleaning it up is not good enough for America’s only Arctic.  Shell’s decision making over the 2012 drilling season is questionable and even embarrassing. We need to hold Big Oil to better standards and regulations to ensure that their decision making is sound.  Regardless, Shell’s aggressive tactics through litigation and the media will not intimidate Alaska Wilderness League. It is time for President Obama to get serious about the dual threat of climate change and drilling in America’s Arctic and suspend future drilling in the Arctic once and for all.”

“As disappointed as we are in the Court’s decision, it’s clear that this is just one step in the struggle to protect unique and precious places like the Arctic from the unseemly global oil rush that caused the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.  Many millions of people across the globe have pledged their support to avoid such an utterly preventable disaster, and Greenpeace will continue to work with them and the many right minded organizations who are determined to let corporate greed and lax government oversight destroy our common future,” said Greenpeace Deputy Campaign Director Dan Howells.

“The Arctic’s unpredictable ice, turbulent storms, and relentless currents make oil spill containment and clean-up impossible and response plans like the one upheld Yesterday little more than works of fiction,” said Niel Lawrence, Senior Attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council. “The U.S. will never be a global leader on climate change, if it let’s oil companies into the worst place on Earth to drill and pump more carbon pollution into the atmosphere.”

“The court’s decision is a disappointment because Shell has proved over and over that it is not ready to drill in pristine Arctic waters.  Indigenous communities depend on the Arctic environment for their food security and we will continue to use every legal avenue to protect Arctic waters,” said Kevin Harun Arctic Program Director for Pacific Environment.

“Shell can’t even keep its drilling ships from running aground. The idea that Shell has a viable plan to contain a spill doesn’t pass the laugh test, so it’s hard to see how the plan meets legal standards,” said Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold. “Americans are smart enough to know that an oil spill cannot be contained in an ocean full of ice. The Arctic Ocean is precious and wild, and companies cannot be allowed to get away with flippant and obviously false claims about safety.  The Arctic coast and waters are a nursery for hundreds of thousands of waterbirds, countless marine mammals, and more than a dozen marine Important Bird Areas.”

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