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Environmentalists Head to Federal Court in Attempt to Block Shell's Arctic Drilling Plans

A coalition of environmentalists and native Alaskans are suing the federal government in an effort to block Shell's plans to drill in the Arctic this summer.
June 3, 2015, 10:15pm
Photo by Ted S. Warren/AP

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US regulators gave only a hurried, "cursory" review of oil giant Shell's plans for drilling off the coast of Alaska before signing off on them, opponents argue in a new bid to stop the project.

A coalition of native Alaskans and environmental groups have asked a federal appeals court to reverse last month's decision by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to approve Shell's exploration plan. Shell is currently mustering drill rigs and support ships in Seattle for another expedition to the Arctic since the ill-fated summer of 2012, when it was plagued by equipment failures.

"The environmental review was rushed. It happened in 30 days. It was cursory," said Erik Grafe, an Anchorage-based staff attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which filed the petition. Grafe told VICE News that Shell's leases are "right smack in very important habitat" for whales and walruses, which are still hunted for subsistence by native Alaskans.

Grafe said the agency's rushed approval violated two federal environmental laws, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. The filing provides no details, which Grafe said would be laid out "in due course."

Earthjustice also said Monday that it would launch a new challenge to the offshore leases, which were put up for auction in 2008.

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In a written statement to VICE News, Shell called its Arctic program "the most scrutinized exploration plans in the history of North America."

"We expected that the government's approval of our exploration plan would be challenged in court by many of the same organizations that have historically used legal maneuvers to delay Arctic exploration," the company said. "We believe our most recent exploration plan is robust and expect regulators were equally thorough in the process they used to approve it."

But Rebecca Noblin, the Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity, told VICE News she hopes to see the court step in quickly.

"We saw in 2012 that Shell isn't prepared to drill in the Arctic," said Noblin, whose organization is one of the plaintiffs in this week's filing. "The Arctic is a harsh environment, and Shell isn't prepared."

US officials estimate nearly 90 billion barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas lie beneath the Arctic seafloor. And with carbon emissions from fossil fuels warming the region roughly twice as fast as lower latitudes, the ocean's shrinking ice cover has opened up new opportunities to tap into those potential reserves.

Environmentalists say that's a recipe for disaster. The Interior Department estimated in February that there was a 75 percent chance of an oil spill larger than 1,000 gallons in the coming decades if the Arctic is opened to development. And Noblin said there was "no capacity to respond to a large oil spill" in the area, which is near an important marine habitat called Hanna Shoal.

"It's very biologically productive," Noblin said. "It's an important feeding area for large numbers of walruses that spend their summer in the Chukchi Sea. It's also important to other marine mammals, whales, and seals."

**Related: **Shell's plans to drill in the Arctic this summer and it's already failed a Coast Guard inspection

Native Alaskans subsistence hunters rely on the walrus for food, and drilling might scare the animals away from their traditional habitats, she said.

"These are walruses that depend on sea ice, so they're already in big trouble because of climate change," she said.

Shell started two Chukchi Sea wells in 2012, but the federal government halted the work when an undersea containment device failed tests. The hired drill ship Noble Discoverer was damaged in an engine-room fire, and the drill platform Kulluk broke loose from its tugs and ran aground in a storm at the season's end.

In December, Noble Discoverer's owners pleaded guilty to eight federal felony counts and paid $12.2 million in fines for trying to cover up the failure of a key piece of anti-pollution gear and the subsequent dumping of oily water from its engine room. The same piece of equipment broke down during a Coast Guard inspection in Honolulu, Hawaii in April, resulting in the ship being held for a day until repairs could be made.

Shell says it's beefed up its safety measures since its last attempt and is still awaiting final permits before heading north. But opponents have been rallying to stop the new push — particularly in Seattle, where the mayor has tried to kick Shell's flotilla out of the city's port and environmental activists protested the arrival of another drill rig, the Polar Pioneer, on land and sea.

"There's been a real turnaround in public understanding of the issue," Noblin said. "Now we're seeing a real public outcry against Shell after seeing how they messed up in 2012, and I think the public is more aware of the risk to the climate from Arctic drilling."

**Related: **If we release a small fraction of Arctic carbon, 'We're fucked,' says climatologist

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