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Shell Alaska Lawsuit Preempts Environmental Challenge Of Spill Response Plan

First Posted: 03/01/2012 11:54 am Updated: 05/01/2012 5:12 am

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Royal Dutch Shell Oil Co. is taking the offensive against environmental groups that have put legal roadblocks in the company's path to offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

The Houston-based oil giant on Wednesday sued 11 Alaska Native or environmental organizations that have challenged Arctic offshore drilling at various regulatory steps, starting with the sale of leases and continuing through nearly every permit Shell has needed to dip into the petroleum wealth believed to be in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast and the Beaufort Sea off the state's north coast.

The lawsuit would initiate the inevitable court review of Shell's Chukchi Sea oil spill response plan, said Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith.

"This pre-emptive action is an attempt to avoid challenges on the eve of summer drilling operations by organizations that have historically used last-minute legal maneuvers to delay properly approved operations," Smith said by email.

Attorney Whit Sheard, of Oceana, an environmental group named in the lawsuit, called the lawsuit called "fairly frivolous."

"They're just trying to circumvent the normal timeline that we're allowed under the process to look at the decision the federal government made, evaluate whether it's legal and then exercise — or not exercise — our option to litigate," he said.

Attorney Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity said Shell's lawsuit is unlikely to succeed. It appeared to be an attempt to intimidate drilling plan opponents, he said.

"Shell probably would not have filed this case if they did not have real fear about whether the spill plan would survive legal scrutiny," he said. His group continues to review the spill plan approval for its legality.

Shell, in a second Alaska lawsuit, targeted Greenpeace only. The measure seeks a restraining order and injunction against organization members seeking to stop them from illegally disrupting Shell operations.

Greenpeace activists in New Zealand, including actress Lucy Lawless, last week boarded a Shell drill ship, the Noble Discoverer, before it left for the West Coast. After cold-weather modifications, Shell plans to use the Noble Discoverer this year in the Chukchi Sea. Lawless and five other Greenpeace were charged Monday with burglary.

Greenpeace spokesman James Turner said the restraining order would be a draconian measure based on actions 6,000 miles away in another country. Language in the restraining order request would affect anyone acting in concert with Greenpeace at company property anywhere in the United States, such as gas stations, and not just drill ships.

"That seems to open up an incredibly broad picture of the type of activity that could be subject to this restraining order," he said.

Shell hopes to drill up to three exploratory wells in the Chukchi during the short open water season this summer and two wells in the Beaufort using separate drilling ships. Both require a flotilla of support vessels, including spill response boats and gear, and the company wants legal challenges settled before amassing equipment and personnel.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement approved Shell's spill response plan two weeks ago over the objections of critics who say oil companies have never demonstrated that they can clean up a spill in water where skimmers, boom and other equipment are affected by ice, which can range from slush to floes. Drill sites in the Chukchi are more than 1,000 miles from the nearest Coast Guard station and northern Alaska lacks infrastructure considered routine elsewhere, such as multiple deep water ports, major airports or accommodations for spill response workers.

Shell counters that its spill response team is largely self-contained. Shell support vessels will carry a capping stack that could be lowered over an underwater blowout if blowout preventers fail, as they did in BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. If a drill ship is damaged in a blowout, the second drill ship can drill a relief well, the company said. Response equipment staged in the fleet can be on the scene within an hour.

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Filed by James Gerken  |