ANCHORAGE, Alaska — 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 13 groups filed the legal challenge to federal approval in August of Shell Oil's exploration drilling plan with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Earthjustice attorney Holly Harris said in a news teleconference that allowing Shell to drill when it has no credible plan to clean up an Arctic Ocean oil spill is insulting and irresponsible.
The company has said that the chance of a spill during exploration was minimal and that its spill response plan more than meets federal requirements. That plan includes a fleet of response vessels, onshore response and a containment cap that cover a blowout, it said.
But Harris said the company's contention that it could recover 95 percent of oil spilled from exploratory drilling was preposterous.
"In icy conditions, the agency's own analysis and drills conducted in Alaska, suggest it 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. "It is, frankly, a hyperbolic claim to suggest, 'Don't worry, we'll clean up 95 percent of it.'"
Melissa Schwartz, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement in Washington, D.C., said the agency would have no response to 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."
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 strongly backed 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.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had suspended Arctic offshore drilling operations after the blowout of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Salazar has said the federal government will proceed with "utmost caution" in Arctic waters more than 1,000 miles from the nearest Coast Guard base.
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