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Federal Appeals Court Calls Time Out on Controversial Beaufort Sea Oil Drilling
Shell Offshore Inc. was halted in their plan to drill several exploratory oil wells in the Beaufort Sea by a stay implemented by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit late yesterday afternoon. The proposed wells were sited in the middle of the bowhead whale migration corridor. The armada of drilling vessels and support ships are currently passing through the Chukchi Sea en route north to the Beaufort Sea. "“The conservation community, subsistence hunters, and the local government are all deeply concerned about the future of the Beaufort Sea. We all agree that Shell’s proposed drilling plan is too much, too soon, too fast,”" said Rachel James of Pacific Environment. “"We’re pleased that the Court has ordered Shell to take a ‘time out.’”" Challenges to the plan were brought by Pacific Environment, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), a grassroots organization of Native subsistence users, and several other conservation groups. "“This is a great relief to the people of the North Slope",” said Faith Gemmill, of REDOIL. These groups maintain that the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS) approved the plan without fully analyzing the potential impacts, and without conducting a public process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). MMS’s analysis, for example, did not consider the potential for an accidental spill of crude oil. “"As a mother and a grandmother, I am concerned that the Arctic Inupiat whaling culture is at risk because the MMS insists on rushing ahead with offshore oil plans,” "said Doreen Simmonds, an Inupiat resident of Barrow and REDOIL member. “"Considering the movement of the ocean ice, there is too big of a risk that an oil spill will occur, therefore creating a risk of destroying the Inupiat culture.”" The groups challenging the plan raised concerns on the threats to marine mammals, including species that are vital to subsistence. Industrial activity in the Beaufort threatens the endangered bowhead whale, polar bears and birds, including threatened Steller’s and spectacled eiders. Additionally, the constant air traffic associated with drilling can disturb caribou and interfere with the subsistence hunt. The North Slope Borough and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission brought a separate challenge to the drilling plan. "“Polar bears are already threatened by global warming,”" said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. “"Opening up some of their most important habitat in the United States to oil drilling and development would push them ever further down the path to extinction.”" The Court’s stay stops the drilling plan pending a hearing on the matter scheduled for August 14, 2007. “"This is a much needed respite for the delicate Arctic ecosystem. We are pleased the Court is carefully considering the threats the drilling poses to Arctic wildlife and the people who rely upon that wildlife to sustain them,”" said Deirdre McDonnell of Earthjustice, attorney for the conservation groups and Native group, REDOIL. Groups bringing the challenge represented by Earthjustice include the Alaska Wilderness League, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pacific Environment, and Center for Biological Diversity.