Court backs federal approval of Shell's Arctic drilling plans

ANCHORAGE — A federal appeals court has sided with the federal government in giving the go-ahead to Shell Oil to move forward with drilling in the Alaska Arctic this year.

In the ruling issued late Friday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected challenges by Alaska Native groups to Shell’s exploration plan in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s northern coastline, The Anchorage Daily News reported.

The panel also denied petitions challenging the company’s plan for exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea drill off northwest Alaska.

The Native Village of Point Hope and the Inupiat Community of the North Slope said the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management failed to properly consider the risks of drilling in the Arctic in approving Shell’s plans. Several environmental groups, including Greenpeace, Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society, also challenged the federal approval.

The bureau approved Shell’s latest exploration plan for the Beaufort Sea in August subject to 11 conditions, including two that required it to prove its oil spill response capabilities to another federal agency. That agency, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, in March approved Shell’s oil response plan for the Beaufort Sea.

The challengers said Shell proposal’s for a well-capping stack and containment system in the event of an oil spill was incomplete, and that it had failed to fully inform the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management about its oil spill response plan, the Daily News reported.

They contended that the federal government erred in approving the plan because the plan included a well-capping stack and containment system as part of its proposed response to oil spills, but it did not provide all the information required under federal rules. A capping and containment system has never been used in Alaska or in Arctic drilling conditions.

The challengers said that Shell’s seven-paragraph description was not enough, but the appeals court judges disagreed.

The case marks the third time the federal government has had to defend its approval of Shell’s Beaufort Sea exploration plan in court, the opinion said.

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