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Green Groups Sue US over Approval of Shell's Arctic Drilling Spill Plans

Common Dreams staff

Giant oil rigs near Vancouver, Wash., on their way to Alaska’s North Slope in July 2011. (Steven Lane/The Columbian, via Associated Press)

A coalition of conservation organizations filed a lawsuit in Alaska federal court on Tuesday challenging the US government’s approval of Shell Oil Company’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic.

The environmental coalition -- which includes the Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace Inc., National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Ocean Conservancy, Oceana, Pacific Environment, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands and the Sierra Club -- says the spill response plans presented by Shell are not nearly adequate and their lawsuit directly challenges the responsibility of the government's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and the Dept. of the Interior.

The lawsuit alleges the government violated environmental law, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act in approving spill plans for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

In a statement, the group notes that less than two years after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Interior Secretary Salazar recently brushed aside concerns about Shell’s spill response capabilities, stating recently that ‘there is not going to be an oil spill.’

“We have been forced to court to make sure the Arctic Ocean is protected and Shell is prepared, as mandated by law," the group said.  "BSEE rubber-stamped plans that rely on unbelievable assumptions, include equipment that has never been tested in Arctic conditions, and ignore the very real possibility that a spill could continue through the winter."

In the harsh weather and icy conditions of the Beaufort and Chuchki Sea -- where the drilling is scheduled to begin in the coming weeks -- a large-scale oil spill clean up would be  impossible, the coalition argues. "There have been no tests of spill response equipment in US Arctic waters since 2000 and those equipment tests were a failure.  Today, Shell relies on much of that same equipment, and bases its plans on the assumption that it will clean up more than 90 percent of any spilled oil. Even in relatively favorable conditions, less than 10 percent of spilled oil was recovered after the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez spills."

Reporting by the Associated Press indicates that the lawsuit is unlikely to stop the exploratory drilling scheduled for this summer. But, according to attorney Michael Levine, "the case could prevent drilling in future seasons, if the coalition succeeds in getting the approvals set aside."

Read the official complaint here.

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