Environmentalists: Feds should shelve Shell’s Arctic plans because of walrus rules

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Environmentalists are making another appeal to the Obama administration to rescind its earlier approval of Shell’s broad plans for exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

In a four-page letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, 10 environmental groups delivered their strongest argument yet that Shell’s exploration plan is invalid and the Interior Department would violate federal law if it issued drilling permits for Shell’s planned wells in the Chukchi Sea.

The missive provides a preview of arguments those groups could make in any potential court challenge tied to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s “letter of authorization” giving Shell permission to conduct some drilling operations that could disturb walruses and other nearby marine mammals.

Read more: Obama administration delivers big blow to Shell’s Arctic drilling plans

The agency said animal protections embedded in a 2013 regulation do not allow those disturbances from simultaneous drilling operations within 15 miles of each other — well beyond the 8.9 miles separating Shell’s planned Chukchi Sea wells.

Environmentalists applauded the agency for holding firm on the buffer zone, but said the Interior Department should go further and rescind its earlier approval of Shell’s broad Chukchi Sea exploration plan. In vetting that document, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management examined the environmental impacts of simultaneous drilling over an abbreviated number of years — eschewing a similar analysis of an alternative program with just one running rig or active drilling operation at a time.

“It is even clearer today that the Department of the Interior must rescind its approval of Shell’s exploration plan and refuse to approve Shell’s applications for permits to drill,” said the groups, including the Alaska Wilderness League, League of Conservation Voters and Oceana.

Any operations allowed to proceed under the 15-mile separation requirement “would be substantially different than the operations proposed by Shell and approved by the department,” the groups said. “The department’s approval of the exploration plan hinged on an environmental analysis that refused to consider an alternative based on sequential wells, because spreading out drilling effects over a number of years would ‘lead to greater overall adverse environmental effects.'”

Interior officials have suggested that Shell’s planned Arctic operations would still constitute a two-rig program — with both the Polar Pioneer and Noble Discoverer on location in the Chukchi Sea. It is possible the rigs could take turns drilling separate wells into Shell’s Burger prospect.

But the environmental groups insist any such sequential drilling “would both heighten the intensity of activities in any one year and prolong the drilling” over more years.

And they argue that the walrus protections could thwart Shell’s plans for keeping sea ice away from its drilling site, because the Fish and Wildlife Service’s letter of authorization bars the company from operating during July, August and September in some walrus feeding areas in the Chukchi Sea. Those off-limits walrus feeding areas shift from month to month, but in July and August, they are within miles of Shell’s proposed drilling.

The Interior Department’s evaluation and approval of Shell’s exploration plan was tied to the premise that ice management would occur freely, the groups note. And regulators specifically noted that active ice management might be required in waters between Shell’s Burger prospect and the Chukchi Sea’s Hanna Shoal, where ice tends to accumulate.

The arguments could be fodder in new lawsuits or ongoing litigation challenging the government’s handling of Arctic oil and gas development, including a case targeting the Interior Department’s approval of Shell’s Chukchi Sea exploration plan.

Separately last year, a coalition of conservation organizations filed a lawsuit in a federal district court in Alaska challenging the Fish and Wildlife Service’s rules for disturbing walruses in the Chukchi Sea.