Royal Dutch Shell launched an extraordinary pre-emptive legal strike Wednesday against opponents of offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean, filing suit against more than a dozen environmental organizations likely to challenge its plan for drilling exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea this summer.
In a petition for declaratory relief filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, the oil giant seeks to have the court rule that the U.S. government complied with federal law when it approved Shell's oil spill response plan for upcoming exploratory well-drilling in the Arctic.
The move is a clear attempt to beat environmental organizations to court and avert potentially costly delays for a project on which Shell has already spent $4 billion without drilling a single well.
The oil company launched a separate petition against Greenpeace, whose activists last week boarded the drilling rig now moored in New Zealand and scheduled to begin drilling in the Arctic in July. Six activists, including television actress Lucy Lawless, climbed the rig before being arrested.
A hearing was under way Wednesday afternoon in federal court in Anchorage on the company's request for a temporary restraining order prohibiting Greenpeace from engaging in "illegal and dangerous actions" tied to the upcoming offshore drilling program.
"This is a very unique legal approach. I'm not sure anything like this has ever been done before," Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh told the Los Angeles Times.
The suit names the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Defenders of Wildlife, the National Audubon Society and several other groups that for years have filed lawsuits and appeals challenging the federal government's offshore leasing programs in the Arctic, the lease sale under which Shell gained the right to explore in the Chukchi, and the Environmental Protection Agency's approval of air quality permits for drilling operations.
Op de Weegh said Shell attorneys were convinced that conservationists would probably file suit against the oil spill response plan recently approved by the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and wanted to make sure that didn't occur on the eve of drilling -- an outcome that, since drilling can be done only during the ice-free summer months, could delay operations for another full year.
"We're confident that the approval of this plan met all legal and regulatory requirements and it's certainly strong enough to withstand legal review, but we'd just rather start that sooner rather than later," op de Weegh said.
"This does not restrict, and we're not seeking to restrict, any parties' right to challenge the oil spill response plan," she added. "The goal is to have the court review BSEE's approval of this plan, saying in the court's opinion it was thoroughly reviewed, the approval was valid."
Whit Sheard, Pacific counsel and senior adviser for Oceana, one of the defendants named by Shell, said his organization already filed earlier this month a challenge to the company's exploration plan.
"We don't think they've adequately met the requirements of the law," he said. "This cleanup plan, just like their previous cleanup plans, is woefully inadequate, based on technology that has never been proven, and continues to be too risky for the Arctic environment."
Peter Van Tuyn, attorney for the Alaska Wilderness League, said a legal challenge to the oil spill response plan was likely in any event, "and I presume the plaintiffs would want to hear it pretty quickly anyway," he said.
Still, he said, it was "unusual" for Shell to strike first.
"What are they trying to do, get the courts to declare something legal that hasn't been challenged as illegal? It seems premature, and potentially unnecessary."
Sheard said Shell appears to be calculating that filing suit in Alaska, where there is a strong economic interest in proceeding with offshore oil exploration, will give the company an edge in winning approval to proceed.
"Shell's aggressive campaign to get drills into the fragile and remote Arctic waters have reached a new low -- filing lawsuits against nonprofit organizations acting in the public interest to protect the environment from risky development," he said.
By KIM MURPHY
Los Angeles Times