Story last updated at 11/25/2008 - 4:35 pm
The U.S. Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS) illegally approved plans by Shell Offshore Inc. to drill for oil in the Beaufort Sea off the north coast of Alaska, according to a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' Nov. 20 ruling. The court previously blocked activity under Shell's exploration plan while it considered arguments that the plan presented substantial risks to polar bears, endangered whales, and subsistence-hunting communities.
The order sends Shell's drilling plan back to MMS to meet legal obligations to fully analyze and disclose impacts from drilling on the rapidly changing Arctic environment.
A coalition of Alaska Native organizations and conservation groups sued to halt drilling because large-scale industrial activities threaten endangered bowhead whales, polar bears and other marine animals in coastal waters just off the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"We are very pleased that our case prevailed today," Faith Gemmill, executive director of the REDOIL Network said. "We strongly opposed the plan due to our relevant concerns related to the violation of subsistence rights of Inupiat by the proposed offshore development of the Beaufort Sea. The plan to drill offshore has been on a fast track without proper review of the impacts to the bowhead whale and Inupiat subsistence way of life, which is so interconnected with the ocean. This victory upholds the inherent subsistence right of the Inupiat way of life."
"Today's decision shows that our system works. MMS now must complete environmental review, as required by the law," said Betsy Beardsley of the Alaska Wilderness League. "This review is essential. New data shows that a large portion of Alaska's bowhead population, currently listed as endangered, uses the area Shell seeks to drill."
The Arctic is undergoing major shifts due to climate change. Summer sea ice is retreating rapidly - reaching record minima during the past two summers. The changes raise major concerns about the survival of wildlife - such as the polar bear - that call the Arctic home. In spite of these dramatic, observed changes, however, the Bush administration charged ahead, opening this fragile environment to oil and gas activity, without following environmental laws.
"If polar bears and other ice-dependent species are to survive as the Arctic melts in the face of global warming, we need to protect their critical habitat, not turn it into an industrial zone," said Rebecca Noblin of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Robert Thompson, Kaktovik resident and REDOIL member said the court's decision was a relief.
"It's a relief that the court at least makes MMS go back and analyze the potential impacts of Shell's plan," he said. "Noise and traffic from drilling has the potential to harm our subsistence way of life. The costs of drilling in the Beaufort Sea would lie with the local communities of the North Slope. Shell Oil consistently has not answered our questions. Offshore drilling plans and Arctic Refuge development are interrelated issues. It is my hope that the ocean and the land will be saved for future generations of Inupiat."
Shell had been granted permission by the MMS to drill as many as 12 wells over the course of three years using multiple drill ships, ice breakers, supply boats, and aircraft. During the first year of the plan, Shell had proposed to drill wells in an area important to migrating endangered bowhead whales and to subsistence harvest of Inupiat villages along the Beaufort Sea.
"This is yet another signal that the Obama administration needs to revisit the nation's energy policy," said Whit Sheard, Alaska program director for Pacific Environment. "We simply can't allow giveaways to Big Oil, such as the 70 million acres offered in the Arctic, to pass for an energy policy - especially in an area where our addiction to fossil fuels is already endangering wildlife and threatening traditional communities."
Groups challenging the permit were the Alaska Wilderness League, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pacific Environment, Center for Biological Diversity, and Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), all represented by Earthjustice. The North Slope Borough and Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission also challenged the drilling plan.