Shell Lawsuit Targets Environmental Groups Trying to Stop Exploratory Drilling in Arctic

March 2, 2012
Call it the first shot across the bow: Shell Oil Co. has filed a pre-emptive lawsuit against 11 environmental and native Alaskan organizations in an attempt to avoid a series of court challenges from the groups, which are concerned about drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off the Alaskan coast.

Shell’s lawsuit, called “frivolous” and part of a plan to “intimidate” opponents by the groups being sued, is an attempt to head the groups off at the pass and initiate a court review of Shell’s oil spill response plan, said Shell spokesperson Curtis Smith. Organizations such as Greenpeace, Oceana, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others “have historically used last-minute legal maneuvers to delay properly approved operations,” he said.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement approved Shell's spill response plan, despite critics’ concerns that the traditional methods used to contain and clean oils spills can be rendered ineffective by the ice and harsh weather conditions found in the Arctic. Countering critics’ assertions that some of the proposed drilling sites are more than 1,000 miles from help should a spill occur, Shell claims that it will have support teams, equipment and resources at the drilling sites to target any spills and even cap a blowout.

The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups sued by Shell, and allies have filed a lawsuit in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals challenging EPA’s air-pollution permit for Shell’s exploratory drilling operations in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

“As early as this summer, the Discoverer drillship and other ships in Shell’s fleet could be in the Chukchi Sea or Beaufort Sea of the Arctic Ocean drilling for oil in some of the harshest conditions on earth,” said Vera Pardee, an attorney with the center. “Each year, Shell’s massive ships will churn out vast amounts of harmful pollution that will not only damage the Arctic’s fragile ecosystems but accelerate the climate change that’s robbing polar bears and walruses of the sea ice they need to survive.”

The EPA approved Shell’s permits even though they don’t comply with the latest Clean Air Act standards. Although there are readily available technologies that would substantially reduce emissions from these ships, the EPA did not mandate that Shell install additional pollution controls.

“Drilling for oil in the remote waters of the Arctic Ocean is courting disaster,” Pardee said. “It took months to stop the Deepwater Horizon spill, but an Arctic spill would be exponentially more dangerous and could be nearly impossible to control. Even the U.S. Coast Guard has admitted it doesn’t have the resources to cope with a spill. Instead of green-lighting Shell’s drilling operations, we should be focusing on energy sources that are clean, safe and sane.”

Earthjustice represents the center and Alaska Wilderness League, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environment Center, Oceana, Pacific Environment, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society in the lawsuit.

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