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US: Earthjustice, Alaska Natives protest drilling plans in Beaufort Sea

by Terry WincklerEarthjustice Legal Fund and CIEL
March 1st, 2007

Alarmed by threats to marine mammals, Earthjustice and Alaskan Natives are demanding proper environmental analysis of an oil company's plan to drill this year in the Beaufort Sea.

Earthjustice sent a letter to the federal government, saying the effects of drilling on bowhead whales, polar bears and other Arctic ocean animals needs better evaluation before Royal Dutch Shell PLC can proceed. The letter argued that the administration should conduct a thorough environmental impact statement, including a public comment period, before approving Shell's drilling plan.

The federal Mineral Management Service proceeded without public process or environmental impact statement to permit Shell to drill as many as four wells a year, starting this year.

Earthjustice attorney Deirdre McDonnell wrote the letter challenging Shell's rush to drill. She said Shell's oil exploration could force migrating whales far offshore and away from native hunters who depend on them for subsistence.

"We're really concerned about the potential impacts of drilling on the bowhead whale -- a species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Not only does all of the industrial activity associated with the project -- including drill ships and icebreakers -- pose a threat to wildlife, there's the ever-present threat of a devastating oil spill that needs to be looked at seriously here," McDonnell said.

A coalition of Alaska Natives also is vociferously objecting.

"Our animals bypass our village migrating north and then south of us. We feel that there is nothing that can replace our food from our sea.... We have consistently expressed our concern and stated opposition to any sort of offshore oil and gas exploration," said Jack Schaefer, vice president for the Native Village of Point Hope.

Some of the proposed drilling and exploration is immediately offshore from the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, an area that Congress has consistently refused to open to oil drilling despite non-stop efforts of the Bush administration. The plan appears to be a backdoor way to circumvent Congress.

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