ANCHORAGE - Shell Oil has found a friend in the federal government in its quest to explore offshore oil possibilities in the Arctic Ocean.
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A court in San Francisco has blocked the Dutch oil giant's exploratory drilling plan in the Beaufort Sea at the request of the North Slope Borough, environmental groups and other organizations.
The groups say regulators failed to adequately consider the potential impacts of industrial noise and spills associated with oil exploration.
The move came after the Minerals Management Service in February approved Shell's drilling plan, finding the proposed exploration wouldn't cause significant harm to endangered bowhead whales or the environment.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has scheduled the case for a Dec. 4 hearing.
Government lawyers this week filed papers arguing that the court challenges should be thrown out because they're groundless and, in some cases, were lodged after a deadline had passed.
Randall Luthi, whom the Bush administration appointed director of the Minerals Management Service in late July, said in an interview Wednesday in Anchorage that his agency stands behind its decision to let Shell drill.
"I'm proud of the environmental work that we've done," he said.
Luthi, an attorney, cattle rancher and former state legislator from Wyoming, said he and the agency's new director, John Goll, have no plans to back off leasing new Arctic offshore acreage to prospective drillers.
The agency has a sale scheduled for early next year covering millions of acres in the remote Chukchi Sea, which stretches west of the Beaufort Sea to Russia.
A full environmental impact statement already has been done for that sale, Goll said.
Much of the U.S. coastline is closed to leasing. The open areas are in the Gulf of Mexico, a small section off California and Alaska. These zones can play a big role in reducing the country's widening dependence on energy imports, Luthi said.
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