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Guardian Unlimited: Polar bears block Arctic oil drilling

Terry Macalister
Monday July 23, 2007

Shell has been forced to halt plans to start drilling in the Arctic by a court challenge from indigenous Alaskans and green groups who claim that polar bears and whales would be put at serious risk.

The ban by the US court of appeal pending a hearing on the issue came as Shell and its new partner Gazprom came under renewed attack for its activities off Sakhalin Island in Russia with a panel of experts from the World Conservation Union urging the operators to do more to protect the western grey whales that feed in the area.

Shell was given permission by the US Minerals Management Service in February to undertake exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea but the North Slope Borough, an alliance of conservation and local ethnic groups, argue the go-ahead was given without an appropriate review of the damage that could be done.

“Polar bears are already threatened by global warming,” said Brendan Cummings, from the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the petitioners. “Opening up some of their important habitat in the United States to oil drilling and development would push them ever further down the path to extinction.”

“This is a great relief to the people of the North Slope,” said Faith Gemmill, a member of Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands, another of the critics who have halted Shell — at least until a legal hearing in San Francisco on August 14.

The groups question whether it would be possible to clear up any sizeable crude oil spills in the freezing waters of north Alaska, which are home to bowhead and beluga whales.

But Shell says it is confident that it can reassure the court — and its critics — that it should be allowed to proceed with plans to drill up to 12 exploration wells under a number of licences obtained in the Beaufort Sea and other Arctic areas, including Flaxman Island, north-west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Oil companies have been banned from drilling in the refuge although president George Bush has continually raised the possibility that it will be opened up to them.

A Shell spokesman, Curtis Smith, confirmed that the court has asked for more information. “We will comply with the court order and continue to welcome discussions with the North Slope communities. Alaska is a long-term investment for Shell,” he said.

The Sakhalin Energy company, of which Shell is a key member, has rejected as “not technically feasible” a request from the World Conservation Union’s Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel to adopt stricter criteria for the management of noise to avoid disrupting the endangered species as it migrates between eastern Russia and southern China.

In return the conservationists said: “The panel finds Sakhalin Energy’s apparent decision to reject the noise criteria proposed in April for the 2007 season extremely disappointing and potentially unsafe for the western grey whale population: it has received no new information from the company to justify its decision.”

Sakhalin Energy said: “So far, in some 10 years of operations near the western grey whale feeding grounds, no discernable impacts have been observed in the whales as a result of the Sakhalin II activities and the population has actually increased in this period.”,,2133042,00.html and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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