Shell urges court to allow drilling in Arctic over environmentalists' objections

By Associated Press
Friday, May 7, 2010; A10

PORTLAND, ORE. -- Shell Oil is ready to drill in the Arctic Ocean this summer and asked a federal appeals court Thursday to rule quickly on a challenge by environmentalists concerned about the risk of a major spill after the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

Kathleen Sullivan, an attorney for Shell, said the company has spent at least $3.5 billion on Alaska operations in the past few years as it prepares for exploratory drilling, scheduled for July, in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

"Shell has waited years to recover its investment," Sullivan told a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland. "We're ready to go."

"I'm sure Shell would like to win," Chief Judge Alex Kozinski said.

A coalition of environmentalists and Native Alaska groups that is challenging the drilling plans told the court that the federal Minerals Management Service failed to consider the potential threat to wildlife and the risk for disaster before it approved the Shell project.

Christopher Winter, an attorney for the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, said the Interior Department agency "simply ignored key aspects" about the possible effects of drilling operations on bowhead whales, including interruption of feeding patterns.

Conditional approval for exploration in the Beaufort Sea came in October, as part of the development of oil leases sold under the Bush administration and upheld by the Obama administration in March.

Although the appeals court hearing had been scheduled before the Gulf Oil spill and arguments did not involve it, the environmental coalition has been making comparisons in public statements about the case.

On Wednesday, environmental groups sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar urging him to reconsider the exploratory Alaska drilling by Shell. Salazar said the department would grant no new permits until at least May 28, when an investigation of the gulf accident is expected to be complete. He said that Shell Oil's plans to drill off the coast of Alaska would fall under the freeze.

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