Environmentalists join Natives in drilling suit

NORTH SLOPE: Risk of big spill not studied properly, they say.

December 15, 2009 

Native Alaskan groups who depend on whaling and a coalition of environmental groups sued the federal government Tuesday, seeking to block a Shell Oil subsidiary from drilling next year in the Beaufort Sea.

The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, a federally recognized tribal government representing Alaska North Slope communities, asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a drilling plan the Minerals Management Service approved in October.

Hours later, a coalition of 10 environmental groups and Arctic communities filed a second action with the San Francisco court, claiming the MMS did not properly evaluate the effects of the proposed drilling, including the risk of a major spill.

Lily Tuzroyluke, executive director of the Native Village of Point Hope, an Inupiat Eskimo community on the shore of the Chukchi Sea, said the ocean is her people's garden.

"We rely on it for our food and our culture," she said in a statement. "MMS's decision to allow Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean next summer recklessly endangers the traditional subsistence way of life we have sustained for thousands of years.

MMS spokesman Nicholas Pardi said the agency could not comment on pending lawsuits.

Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said MMS was thorough in its technical and environmental evaluation.

"Shell has demonstrated its ability to operate in the Arctic in an environmentally responsible manner," he said in an e-mail. "We fully expect MMS to be successful in defending its approval."

MMS in October approved Shell's Beaufort plan for two wells. The agency last week conditionally approved a Shell drilling plan for up to three exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea. For both projects, Shell proposes exploratory drilling in open water using a 500-foot drill ship, an ice management vessel, an ice class anchor handling vessel and oil spill response vessels.

Representatives of Inupiat whalers said they were not satisfied.

"Shell wants to drill wells and drive its fleet of vessels straight through the bowhead whale migration," said George Edwardson, president of ICAS, in a prepared statement. "What happens if there is a major oil spill? We have an obligation to protect our people."

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