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New challenge to offshore drilling in the Chukchi Sea

January 20, 2010 |  3:59 pm

Arctic-oil-gcz45uke

Absent a long-range policy on oil and gas development in the offshore Arctic from the Obama administration, the federal courts continue to be the battleground of choice over America's next oil frontier.

With a legal challenge to Shell Offshore Inc.'s exploration plan in the Beaufort Sea already filed in December, a coalition of conservation groups and Alaska Natives is now mounting a similar challenge over development in the Chukchi Sea.

Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc.'s summer 2010 drilling operation, which includes a 514-foot-long drill ship and associated support vessels and aircraft, will take place at least 60 miles offshore, and "directly in the endangered bowhead whale's migration pathway through the Chukchi and Beaufort seas," the groups said in announcing their petition, filed with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in December conditionally approved Shell's application to drill three exploratory wells. Shell paid $2.1 billion for leases in the Chukchi Sea in 2008. Shell won approval for two exploration wells in the Beaufort Sea, ranging from 16 to 23 miles offshore, in October.

"A key component of reducing our country's dependence on foreign oil is the environmentally responsible exploration and development of America's renewable and conventional resources," Salazar said in approving the drilling plan.

Groups challenging the approval, including the native village of Point Hope and 12 conservation organizations, said it had received only a "cursory environmental review," despite the threat to habitat for polar bears, walrus, whales and other Arctic wildlife on which Alaska Natives depend for subsistence.

“We were really hoping for a new, careful approach by the federal government toward America’s Arctic,” said David Dickson, Western Arctic and Oceans Program director for the Alaska Wilderness League.  “This disappointing shortcut approval for Shell’s drilling program indicates that the old drill-now approach, regardless of the risks, is still in place.”

Shell has agreed to halt operations during the whale migration period and is required to conduct a full-scale drill to prove it could clean up an oil spill, among other conditions.

-- Kim Murphy

Photo: Oil operations at Prudhoe Bay, on Alaska's North Slope, shown here, are gradually moving offshore
into the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Credit: Jack Smith / Associated Press

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