The North Slope Borough has decided against joining lawsuits filed this week that challenge federal permission to let oil giant Shell drill two exploration wells in the Beaufort Sea next month.
The borough has often opposed oil development off the Arctic coast.
But Mayor Edward Itta said the borough would rather negotiate with Shell than join the lawsuits.
The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope on Tuesday asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a drilling plan the U.S. Minerals Management Service approved in October.
Separately on Tuesday, a coalition of 10 environmental groups and Arctic communities filed with the appeals court claiming that the MMS did not properly evaluate the effects of the proposed drilling, including the risk of a major spill.
Itta said concerns regarding the impacts to migrating whales remain. But, he said, the MMS's go-ahead for Shell to drill requires, for the first time, "a shutdown of drilling activities during our fall hunt of the bowhead whale. The certainty of this protection is a positive step. The whalers in Barrow, Nuiqsut and Kaktovik can rest assured that their fall hunt will not be interrupted by Shell's industrial noise."
He noted that Shell has significantly scaled back its original drilling plan.
"In some ways, this plan is an improvement over Shell's original proposal. I give them credit for responding to some of our concerns," he said.
Itta said the borough still has concerns about some unresolved issues over Shell's plan. The oil company still needs noise, air and water pollution permits, and whalers are concerned about what will happen to bowhead cow-calf pairs "that will be diverted from the Camden Bay feeding area due to Shell's industrial noise," he said.
"We expect a huge company like Shell to clear the bar with room to spare. We need them to provide robust protections, not just minimums," Itta said. "That's why we continue to engage with them and the agencies. I think we're making some progress. I'd rather work it out this way if we can."
Itta also called on the state and federal governments to upgrade safeguards in the Arctic, including a stronger Coast Guard presence in Arctic waters.
Daily News staff and wire