Groups sue to block offshore drilling by Shell in Arctic

Dan Joling | Associated Press

More than a dozen Alaska Native and environmental organizations sued Thursday to block offshore oil drilling in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's north coast.

The groups filed the legal challenge with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, seeking an order reversing federal approval of Shell Oil's exploration drilling plan in August.

Earthjustice attorney Holly Harris asserted in a news teleconference that Shell didn't have a credible plan to clean up an Arctic Ocean oil spill, long a contention of environmental and Native organizations. Allowing drilling under that circumstance is insulting and irresponsible, she said.

But Shell has long contended that the chance of a spill during exploration was minimal and that its spill response plan more than met federal requirements. That plan includes a fleet of response vessels, onshore response and a containment cap that can cover a blowout, it said.

Harris said Shell was hopelessly optimistic.

"In icy conditions, the agency's own analysis and drills conducted in Alaska suggest (recovery) could drop to 3 percent or 1 percent, or ultimately can be completely ineffective, with crews just standing by because they literally can't deploy," Harris said.

Melissa Schwartz, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement in Washington, D.C., said the agency would have no comment on the lawsuit.

Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said by phone from New Orleans that the challenge was expected but that the company's exploration plan deserved approval.

"We believe BOEMRE was thorough in its analysis of our plan and we are confident that their approval of our plan will be validated in court, as it was in May of 2010," he said.

The company also was confident in its spill response plan, he said.

"We feel we have put in place the most technically sound, environmentally sensitive plan of exploration in the history of North America," he said. "Our confidence in making a statement like that is informed by our history in Alaska, the planning we have done, the unprecedented oil response plan, and the addition of a capping and containment system very much like the one that ultimately ended the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico."

Legal challenges to agency permits face an uphill battle in the courts, which generally are restricted to reviewing whether the agency followed proper procedures in reaching a decision, not whether the decision itself was correct. But even if a case is eventually thrown out, it can bring a project to a halt while issues are briefed and argued, often with multiple third-party intervenors lining up on both sides of the case. One recent lawsuit involving Chukchi Sea exploration had 27 named plaintiffs, defendants and intervenors with a list of attorneys that went on for pages -- and that wasn't particularly unusual.

Shell wants to drill up to three exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea and two in the Beaufort Sea in 2012. Arctic Ocean outer continental shelf reserves are estimated by the federal government at 26.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Shell Alaska has said it has spent upward of $4 billion on leases and development in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

Drilling is acked by Alaska officials hoping to find new sources of oil for the trans-Alaska pipeline. But exploration drilling during ice-free months this year was blocked in part by a successful appeal of two air permits issued to Shell in 2010 by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA announced last week it had approved an air quality permit for one of the company's drilling vessels.

Associated Press