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SAN FRANCISCO - Environmental and Native Alaskan groups asked a federal appeals court Tuesday to block Royal Dutch Shell's plans for exploratory drilling near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
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Lawyers for the groups challenged the U.S. Mineral Management Service's decision earlier this year to allow the energy giant to drill up to 12 exploratory oil wells in the Beaufort Sea off the northern coast of Alaska.
The attorneys told a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the federal agency failed to adequately consider the impact of Shell's exploratory activities on endangered bowhead whales and other marine mammals. They said the government should require more extensive environmental studies before Shell is allowed to drill.
"An oil spill in this area can have a potentially devastating impact that could linger," said Dierdre McDonnell, an attorney representing the Alaska Wilderness League, Sierra Club and other conservation groups.
Attorneys for Shell and the government said they have already conducted a thorough environmental analysis, and there are many measures in place to protect whales and other wildlife. They also emphasized the drilling is only for exploration, and oil production would require more in-depth studies.
"We are gathering information," said Shell attorney Kyle Parker. "We are going out for a limited period of time to see what is there."
Tuesday's hearing followed the appeals court's decision in August to temporarily bar Shell from conducting exploration activities until the justices could weigh arguments on whether to allow the drilling.
Over the past few years, Shell Exploration & Production Co., part of Royal Dutch Shell, has spent more than $80 million for offshore leases in the Beaufort Sea. The nine-square-mile area proposed for drilling is close to Prudhoe Bay, the nation's most productive oil field, as well as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska.
Environmentalists and the Inupiat, natives of Alaska's north coast, are worried about the impact of drilling on Arctic wildlife, particularly the bowhead whale that indigenous groups hunt for food under federal subsistence rules.
Shell's drilling rigs and icebreaking machines can disrupt the bowhead whale's migration through the Beaufort Sea, prompting the animals to swim farther from shore where whale-hunting becomes more dangerous, said attorney Chris Winter, who represents the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.
"Bowhead whales are very sensitive to underwater noise and they can be deflected from their migratory route," Winter told the judges. Past exploration has "subjected the whaling crews to extreme risk of death and injury."
Justice Department attorney David Shilton told the court "exploratory drilling has taken place in several places of the Beaufort Sea before and there hasn't been any ill effects."
The San Francisco-based appeals court is not expected to rule for months.