Eskimos and conservationists challenge Beaufort Sea drilling
It's decision time on drilling for oil and gas in America's Arctic, and a group of Native Alaskan whalers have joined forces with a broad range of conservation groups to try and halt Shell Offshore Inc.'s latest plan to conduct exploration drilling next year in the Beaufort Sea.
A new pair of legal challenges argue that the plan, already approved by the federal Minerals Management Service, would threaten endangered bowhead whales by allowing an armada of drilling vessels to operate squarely in the bowheads' migration path between July and October 2010.
They are asking the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to block the exploratory drilling and order the federal government to more comprehensively consider the potential cumulative effects of the move to drill offshore in both the Beaufort and Chukchi seas -- at a time when climate change threatens the survival of species like polar bears, which spend a big part of their lives on the offshore ice.
"People want the oil and gas, and we understand that. But the government and the offshore operators need to understand that development has to be done in a way that does not threaten our subsistence livelihood and culture," said Harry Brower, chairman of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, which along with the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, filed one of the court challenges in San Francisco.
The second case was filed by the Native Village of Point Hope and 10 environmental protection groups, including the Alaska Wilderness League, Oceana, Pacific Environment and the Sierra Club. Lawyers for the environmental law firm Earthjustice are handling that case.
Shell officials, who had an earlier exploration plan struck down by the appeals court which found it inadequately reviewed, said the the Minerals Management Service exhaustively studied the possible impacts of drilling before approving the exploration plan, and pledged that all possible protective measures will be taken to ensure there are no oil spills or adverse effects on wildlife.
"Shell has gone to great lengths to minimize the impact of our drilling program, including a voluntary shut-down during the fall subsistence whaling harvest of Nuiqsut and Kaktovik, installing best available discharge technology, and reducing the number of wells," company spokeswoman Kelly C. op de Weegh said in a statement. "These steps were taken after considering direct feedback from North Slope stakeholders."
The Beaufort Sea contains an estimated 8.22 billion barrels of oil and 27.64 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is expected to decide soon on a five-year offshore oil program that could include major oil and gas development in the Arctic; the interior secretary announced last week approval for Shell to conduct a similar limited exploration program in the Chukchi Sea, which lies to the west of the Beaufort.
Conservationists said they are concerned that the Beaufort exploratory drilling will take place as close as 20 miles from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They worry about dumping drilling wastes into the sea, and fear that an oil spill in icy conditions would be difficult to clean up.
"If polar bears are to survive into the coming century, we must reject this kind of rushed, poorly planned oil drilling in favor of a more precautionary approach in the rapidly melting Arctic," Rebecca Noblin of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement on behalf of the plaintiffs.
In approving the exploration plan, the Minerals Management Service said Shell would have to obtain an additional drilling permit and must also meet federal air and water quality regulations along with Marine Mammal Protection Act requirements of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service.
“The Minerals Management Service is committed to responsibly developing offshore energy resources,” MMS Director Liz Birnbaum said in the statement announcing the exploration plan approval in October. "Now that we have approved Shell’s plan and reached this important milestone, we will continue to work with Shell to ensure that all activities are conducted in a safe and environmentally responsible manner."
-- Kim Murphy
Photo: Native Eskimos from the community of Barrow rely on bowhead whales for food and a variety of other uses. Credit: Luciana Whitaker-Akins, Associated Press