Alaska whaling groups sue to stop proposed 2010 Shell offshore drilling in Beaufort Sea

By Dan Joling, AP
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Alaska groups sue to stop offshore drilling

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A group that helps manage Eskimo whaling in Alaska has sued to halt petroleum drilling proposed next year in the Beaufort Sea by a subsidiary of Shell Oil.

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 on Tuesday to overturn a drilling plan approved in October by the Minerals Management Service.

The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco, says MMS failed to consider the cumulative effects on bowhead whales of plans by Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc. to drill in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast and the Beaufort Sea off the northern coast.

“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.”

Harry Brower, chairman of the whaling commission, said he understands that people want oil and gas.

“But the government and the offshore operators need to understand that development has to be done in a way that does not threaten our subsistence livelihood and culture,” he said. “We depend on the bowhead whale for food.”

The commission represents 11 coastal subsistence whaling villages and co-manages the bowhead whale subsistence hunt under a cooperative agreement with the federal government.

MMS spokesman Nicholas Pardi said the agency had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment.

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.”

He said Shell has gone to great lengths to minimize the impact of its drilling program, including a voluntary shutdown during the fall subsistence whaling harvest by the villages of Nuiqsut and Kaktovik, installing best available discharge technology and reducing the number of wells.

“These steps were taken after considering direct feedback from North Slope stakeholders,” he said.

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.

Shell’s Beaufort offshore drilling has been challenged before.

In 2007, MMS approved Shell’s drilling program, but the 9th Circuit stopped it, ruling that MMS failed to disclose potential impacts to the bowhead whale and subsistence communities. Shell eventually withdrew the plan.

Shell’s new plan received a cursory environmental assessment, according to the groups.

Brower said Shell agreed to hunters’ requests for a halt in operations during the bowhead whale subsistence hunt by Nuiqsut and Kaktovik.

“Even though this proposal has some protection for our hunting, it would allow Shell to dump thousands of barrels of drilling muds, cuttings, and other waste into Camden Bay, including cooling water full of biocides. Our whales feed and rest in Camden Bay, and care for their young there. We are very concerned that these discharges will harm the whales.”

Edwardson said the project has gotten worse since 2007.

The groups are represented by Chris Winter of Crag Law Center in Portland, Ore.

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