The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Rebecca Noblin, (907) 274-1110

Lawsuit Launched to Protect Polar Bears From Interior Secretary Salazar's Arctic Offshore Drilling Plan

Dangerous Drilling Plans Completely Discounted Oil-spill Risk


The Center for Biological
Diversity today filed a formal notice of intent to sue Interior Secretary Ken
Salazar for failing to assess the impacts on endangered species of a large oil
spill that could result from this summer's offshore exploration drilling in
polar bear habitat off Alaska. In approving drilling plans by Shell Oil, Salazar
concluded that the risk of a large oil spill from exploration drilling was so
remote that no analysis of such a spill under the Endangered Species Act was

"While Salazar's conclusion that exploration drilling
in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas posed little risk of a large oil spill was
dubious at the time it was made, in light of the recent catastrophic oil spill
occurring in the Gulf of Mexico from BP's exploration drilling, such a position
is now clearly untenable," said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director of the

On October 16, 2009, Secretary Salazar approved
Shell's exploration plan to drill in the Beaufort Sea, and on December 7, 2009
he approved a similar Shell plan to drill in the Chukchi Sea. These Arctic seas,
north of Alaska, are home to several threatened and endangered species,
including polar bears, Steller's and spectacled eiders, and
bowhead whales. No
technology currently exists to clean up a large oil spill in icy waters.

In approving Shell's plans, Secretary Salazar adopted
Shell's conclusion that "a large oil spill, such as a crude oil release from a
blowout, is extremely rare and not considered a reasonably foreseeable impact."
Similarly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency in Secretary Salazar's
Interior Department that is charged with protecting the polar bear and other
threatened and endangered species, declined to consider the impacts of a large
oil spill in its Endangered Species Act analysis.

"Given the difficulties of dealing with a spill in
the calm waters of the Gulf, where response equipment and other resources are
close at hand, it is the height of irresponsibility for Secretary Salazar to
allow Shell to drill for oil this summer in remote areas of the Arctic when no
technology exists to clean up an oil spill in icy conditions, and mobilizing an
effective response would be virtually impossible," said Noblin.

The Endangered Species Act requires all federal
agencies, such as the Minerals Management Service, the agency in the Department
of the Interior responsible for managing offshore oil, to ensure that any action
they carry out does not "jeopardize" a threatened or endangered species. Salazar
previously concluded that Shell's drilling plans would not jeopardize the polar
bear and other imperiled species of the Arctic. The Endangered Species Act
requires agencies to revisit their conclusions about an action's impacts on
species if new information calls into question their conclusions. The recent oil
spill in the Gulf of Mexico triggers a legal obligation for Secretary Salazar to
reexamine his approval of Shell's drilling permits in the Arctic. He has
apparently not done so, prompting today's legal notice.

While Obama has announced that no new oil-drilling
operations will occur until review of the Gulf spill is completed, both Shell
and Secretary Salazar are apparently interpreting Obama's directive as not
applying to Shell's drilling plans. Shell's drilling, unless stopped by Obama or
the courts, would begin in early July, likely before the causes of the Gulf
spill are determined, possibly before the leaking well is sealed, and certainly
before cleanup in the Gulf is completed.

"This week, as a result of Secretary Salazar's
rubberstamping of oil-company drilling plans, we are seeing oiled birds and dead
sea turtles wash up on the beaches of Louisiana," said Noblin. "Unless the
secretary calls a halt to Shell's dangerous drilling plans we run the risk of
seeing dead and oiled polar bears washing up on the coast of Alaska this summer.
By recklessly letting Arctic drilling go forward, Secretary Salazar is playing
Russian roulette with the polar bears, bowhead whales, and coastal communities
in Alaska that would be devastated by a spill."

Today's 60-day notice of intent to sue, sent by the
Center for Biological Diversity to Secretary Salazar and two Interior Department
agencies, the Minerals Management Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, is a legally required precursor to filing a lawsuit under the
Endangered Species Act.

At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature — to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive.

(520) 623-5252