Ninth Circuit upholds MMS approval of Shell Arctic drilling

PHOTO/Chris Arend

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the U.S. Minerals Management’s approval of Shell’s exploration plans for the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. A coalition of environmental and Alaska Native groups had contested the decisions but the court rejected the appeals after a May 6 hearing before a three-judge panel of the court.

The decision indicated that the MMS complied with federal law in approving the exploration plans. The two-page 9th Circuit decision stated the panel reviewed "thousands of pages" of records and concluded MMS met its obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The opinion further stated: "Based on our thorough review of the record, we also conclude that the MMS’s decision to approve Shell’s exploration plans under (Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act) was ’supported by substantial evidence on the record considered as a whole.’"

Shell Alaska Venture vice president Pete Slaiby said he was "delighted" by the decision.

"It once again demonstrates that Shell has submitted a robust, safe plan for exploration in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas," Slaiby said. "It is important to keep in mind that several more hurdles are needed to cross before our 2010 plans can be executed. In light of the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico we are working heard to identify additional measures that could be incorporated into our original program to make it even stronger.

"That said, this decision is a large step in the right direction for us."

Because of the expedited nature of the case, the 9th Circuit declared that no motions to stay the decision would be granted.

Oceana, a U.S. conservation group focused on oceans policy, expressed disappointment.

"The decision to move forward was made before the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, causing what will likely be one of the country’s worst ecological disasters with tragic economic impacts for many of those affected," the group said in a press release.

"Conditions in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas are remote and unforgiving; they are much less hospitable than in the Gulf, and response capabilities for a similar blowout are essentially non-existent," Oceana said in the statement.

Shell still has a few permitting challenges to overcome before it can begin exploration. Its authorization to drill is on hold until a review of the Deepwater Horizon accident is complete; its Clean Air Act permits are approved but under appeal; and it needs a total of eight permits under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.

MMS officials were unavailable for comment.

05/13/2010 - 8:00pm