The US District Court in Anchorage has issued an opinion saying the Federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement complied with the law in approving Shell Oil Co.’s oil spill response plans for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
The decision was welcomed by Shell Oil, but drew strong criticism from a coalition of conservation organizations that filed a lawsuit in an effort to halt drilling until and unless clean-up technology is proven effective and reliable for the harsh Arctic Ocean environment.
Judge Ralph Beistline said that under the National Environmental Protection Act’s rule of reason it is up to the BSEE to determine whether additional NEPA review would serve any purpose, and that BSEE found that no such purpose existed.
“Regardless of anything that an additional NEPA review could possible show, the BSEE had no discretion to force Shell to consider any alternatives to the oil spill recovery plans and the BSEE could not consider or incorporate any additional public comment generated by another NEPA review, the judge said.
“The ruling is welcome news and validates that the Department of Interior was thorough in its analysis of Shell’s oil spill response plans for work offshore Alaska,” said Meg Baldino, spokeswoman for Shell in Anchorage.
Oceana spokesman Mike Levine said the ruling was disappointing, in that it validated the government approach to take Shell’s word that it could respond to a spill. “If the law doesn’t require more than that, then we need to change the law,” he said. “There needs to be a determination of what the company can and should be able to do to operate safely and remove spilled oil.”
The environmental groups issued a joint statement saying the ruling was just the first step in protecting the Arctic Ocean from the devastating effects of oil spills.
“The ruling doesn’t change the fact that, as Shell’s misadventures last year showed, the Arctic Ocean is no place for rosy-eyed optimism,” they said. “In fact, until and unless cleanup technology has been proven effective, reliable and benign in the Arctic, it’s no place to drill at all. It is time for the Administration to reassess whether to allow offshore drilling in this pristine environment in the first place.”
Shell experienced several problems during the start up of its drilling program in the Chukchi Sea last year, including the grounding of a drill ship after the season ended.
The company opted to suspend its program for 2013.