Environmentalists challenge Shell’s Arctic spill plans

Roughly a dozen environmental groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging the government’s decision to sign off on Shell’s plans for cleaning up any oil spilled during Arctic drilling over the next two summers.

Although the case is unlikely to affect Shell’s plans to bore up to five wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas this summer, a verdict for the environmentalists could postpone company’s summer 2013 drilling program and force the government to more rigorously vet other firms’ plans to clean up offshore oil spills from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico.

The legal challenge, filed in a federal district court in Anchorage, takes aim at the Interior Department’s decision earlier this year to approve Shell’s plans for responding to oil spills in both the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska. Shell’s oil spill response plans for the region describe a scenario for tackling and encountering 95 percent of oil spilled in an emergency using an underwater containment system and capping stack, as well as skimmers, booms, chemical dispersants and burning to destroy floating crude.

The environmental groups include the Natural Resources Defense Council, Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, Sierra Club and Oceana — the same coalition of conservationists who have battled other aspects of Shell’s Arctic drilling plans.

Although the case takes aim at the government’s approval of Shell’s oil spill response plans and asks that they be invalidated, the lawsuit is not expected to affect Shell’s plans to bore up to five wells in Arctic waters this summer. Environmentalists are not seeking an immediate injunction blocking Shell’s drilling, nor are they asking for expedited review of the case.

Instead, they describe the legal challenge as important to ensure government reviews of future drilling in the Arctic is sufficient to protect the area’s wildlife and habitat.

“This case is about the long-term protection of the Arctic Ocean and the standards that companies like Shell must uphold to protect the ocean from a spill,” said Michael LeVine, Pacific senior counsel for the conservation group Oceana.

A verdict for the environmentalists could result in Shell’s oil spill response plan approvals being invalidated ahead of next summer’s planned drilling. It also could force stiffer government review of future drilling and spill response plans for the region, as more companies launch operations in the Arctic. Shell and Conoco Phillips, for instance, are expected to pursue drilling in U.S. Arctic waters as soon as summer 2014.

The conservationists argue that federal regulators were wrong to sign off on Shell’s plan for cleaning up spilled oil in remote, slushy Arctic waters, where crude could slip under ice and defy traditional methods for lassoing it up. The environmental critics insist that Shell is relying on current technology that can only sop up a small percentage of any crude that enters even calm, warm seas — much less the cold, icy Arctic.

The conservationists also are set to argue that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement ran afoul of federal environmental laws by approving Shell’s plans without making sure that the company could clean up a spill if it happened late in the drilling season and couldn’t be contained before ice encroached. According to the groups, there is a real risk that winter sea ice could close in and shut down a spill response, leaving oil to gush unabated into the water for months.

Oceana’s LeVine noted that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement approved Shell’s “unrealistic” plans for cleaning up spilled oil, even though the last public tests of spill response equipment in U.S. Arctic waters were years ago and were widely deemed a “failure.”

“That assumption is unrealistic, and BSEE hasn’t explained why they think it is reasonable,” LeVine said.

Government auditors warned in a March report that icy conditions, dark days and a lack of infrastructure could hinder efforts to clean up any spill in the region, even if a damaged well were swiftly capped. The Government Accountability Office concluded that icy conditions beginning in fall could impede a spill response, especially if an accident happened late in the short drilling season.

The challengers also contend that the Obama administration ran afoul of federal environmental and endangered species laws by failing to evaluate how the Arctic environment would be affected by various choices Shell could make in cleaning up any spilled oil from its Chukchi and Beaufort sea operations.

But Obama administration officials have defended the approval and insisted that Shell Oil Co.’s plans are robust. In a conference call with reporters last month, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar predicted there would not be an oil spill in the Arctic because Shell’s preparations have been so heavily scrutinized.

Federal regulators also are requiring Shell to halt its drilling in the Chukchi Sea nearly a month earlier than in the Beaufort, to allow extra time for drilling a relief well in case of an emergency.

Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said the company is confident the government’s approvals will withstand legal review.

“These approvals are testament to the huge amount of time, technology and resources that Shell has dedicated to an Arctic oil spill response fleet, which is second to none in the world,” op de Weegh said. “If we were not absolutely confident that we could execute a responsible exploration program, we would not be there.”

In anticipation of this legal challenge, Shell Oil Co. filed its own lawsuits earlier this year against more than a dozen environmental organizations asking a federal judge to declare some of its government approvals valid, even before legal filings called them into question.

That lawsuit could take months to resolve. But it is possible that the new legal challenge could be swept into Shell’s existing case, under U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline.

One of Shell’s two chosen drilling units is in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, while the company waits for ice to clear before sending it northward. A second drilling unit is still en route to Dutch Harbor.

Company representatives anticipate the earliest they will be able to begin drilling — even if all government approvals are awarded and barring any successful legal challenges — is early August, because of an unusually thick layer of ice clinging to Alaska’s shores.