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Groups sue to stop seismic oil exploration in Arctic seas

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The Associated Press: Groups sue to stop seismic oil exploration in Arctic seas

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Alaska Native and environmental groups sued Monday to stop exploration by oil companies this summer in Arctic waters frequented by whales, seals and other marine species.

The groups are challenging federal permits that allow Shell Oil Co. and BP PLC to search for oil and gas using powerful acoustic devices that have been shown, at times, to harm a variety of marine animals.

The technology, known as seismic exploration, is used to determine the geologic makeup of the sea bed.

“The federal government is rushing to approve a burst of new seismic activity without completely studying the effects on marine life,” said attorney Clayton Jernigan of Earthjustice. The nonprofit law firm’s Juneau office filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.

The acoustic signals could disrupt tens of thousands of animals as they feed, socialize and travel through the seas of northern Alaska, according to the lawsuit.

This is especially worrisome to Alaska Natives in the region who depend on the marine mammals for food and worry they will desert traditional hunting areas for quieter waters.

“Our culture revolves around subsistence, with numerous activities and festivals centered around whaling,” said Lily Tuzroyluke of the Native Village of Point Hope, a federally recognized tribe and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “When they’re shooting the seismic gun, we definitely see marine mammals scatter.”

According to Jernigan, the federal government violated U.S. environmental protection laws because it failed to study all the effects before permitting the companies to project “noises as loud as a rocket or a volcanic eruption” into the sea.

The Minerals Management Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, both of which grant permits, are defendants in the suit. Officials at both agencies declined comment, saying they were still reviewing the complaint.

Federal officials said at a public meeting in April that their regulations ensure the seismic work disrupts as few animals as possible.

“We presume that there will be harassment and displacement,” Ken Hollingshead, a fisheries biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service, told The Associated Press then. “We have implemented a mitigation program to ensure the impacts are not significant. They have to be negligible.”

Companies must watch for marine mammals by plane and ship during seismic tests and shut off the air guns if an animal is too close. They also must make sure the tests do not interfere with the spring and fall whale hunts.

BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said his company’s activities in the Beaufort Sea take place in shallow waters well south of bowhead migration path.

“Besides whales, the project has been designed to avoid conflicts with fish, seals other marine mammals and done under very strict rules to minimize potential conflicts,” Rinehart said.

For much of the past decade, BP has been the only company producing offshore oil in Arctic Alaska, although that could change soon. As sea ice recedes, companies have flocked to the region, with Shell emerging as the largest new player.

In February, Shell paid the federal government $2.1 billion for oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea, which spans Russia and northwest Alaska. The company previously spent more than $80 million for federal leases in the Beaufort, about 450 miles east.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith called the company’s previous seismic work in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas over the past two years “safe and environmentally responsible.”

“(They) were successfully completed without any recordable safety incidents or known negative impact to the environment or local communities,” Smith said. “We believe we can achieve that kind of success again in 2008.”

Alaska Native and environmental groups have partnered in at least four lawsuits to block leasing, exploration and drilling. Plaintiffs in the most recent suit include the Alaska Wilderness League, Pacific Environment, Natural Resources Defense Council and REDOIL, an indigenous lands group.

“The immediate goal is to stop the seismic surveys this summer, but in the longer term, our goal is to see federal protection of the Beaufort, Chukchi and entire Arctic basin,” said Brendan Cummings, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, another plaintiff. “Ideally, the next administration will recognize that global warming is real and prioritize the need for alternative energy, rather than these misguided projects.”

The plaintiffs have asked U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick for a preliminary injunction, which would stop all seismic work until the court makes a final decision.

Shell and BP did not immediately comment on how the lawsuit might affect their plans this summer.

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