ANCHORAGE - A coalition of Alaska Natives combined forces Wednesday with some of the heaviest hitters in the environmental community to challenge a plan by Shell Oil to drill off northwest Alaska.
The legal challenge to Shell's approved drilling plan for the Chukchi Sea was filed in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Groups recently filed a similar challenge to Shell's plan for exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's northern coastline.
The focus of Wednesday's request is the Chukchi exploration plan, approved by the Minerals Management Service in December for a Shell subsidiary. The groups allege that the plan doesn't comply with federal environmental laws, relies on outdated science and fails to adequately evaluate the potential impact of a major oil spill.
The MMS approved Shell's drilling plan for up to three exploratory wells in the Chukchi next summer.
"They have never demonstrated the ability to clean up oil in the Arctic Ocean," said Robert Thompson, chairman of Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), a Native group that along with the Native Village of Point Hope hopes to stop Shell.
REDOIL and the village are joined by The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife, as well as several other environmental groups.
Shell believes that the MMS was thorough in its evaluation of the company's exploration plan for the Chukchi, said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith.
"A tremendous amount of work went into writing and evaluating this permit and we fully expect the MMS to be successful in defending its approval," he said.
Moreover, the company has "gone to great lengths" to minimize the impact of both drilling programs in the Beaufort and the Chukchi, Smith said. Those include a voluntary shutdown during the fall subsistence whaling harvest in the Beaufort, installing the best available discharge technology and reducing the number of wells, he said.
Visits by MMS and Shell officials have failed to persuade many locals who are seeing big changes in the Arctic, Thompson said.
"Our culture is based on hunting and we see major species disappearing right before our eyes," he said. "What would the potential pollution do to the whales?"
Oceana, one of the groups requesting the review, said Shell proposes to bring icebreakers, a drill rig and other support vessels and aircraft to the Chukchi, an area already challenged by the impacts of climate change and the loss of sea ice.
"We all know ... that the polar cap is melting. No scientist in the world challenges that," said Jim Ayers, vice president of Oceana. "What is the potential impact of a spill in these sensitive areas?"
Ayers said the hope is that the court will tell MMS it can't approve the plan and it will have to be redone, this time with updated scientific information and an evaluation of alternatives in the plan.
"We want the court to say, 'MMS you need to go do your job,"' he said.