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Activists fire volley at Shell over coral in Arctic

By Jennifer A. Dlouhy: Published 09:56 p.m., Monday, July 30, 2012

WASHINGTON – Environmental activists are keeping the pressure on Shell Oil Co. as it inches closer to launching exploratory drilling in Arctic waters north of Alaska.

Greenpeace activists and marine biologists conducting research in the area documented thick accumulations of soft coral in the Chukchi Sea near an area where Shell plans exploratory oil drilling.

Greenpeace scientists documented the sea raspberry coral during a recent research submarine dive in the Arctic waters north of Alaska. They took samples and photos of the species, known as Gersemia rubiformis, during the research mission and published the images on their website.

The move is the latest bid by environmental advocates to keep a spotlight on Shell’s Arctic plans and the marine life they say could be irrevocably damaged by an oil spill.

Greenpeace activists are using a 237-foot-long ice-class ship, the Esperanza, to follow Shell’s work from a distance. The group risks hefty fines and potential jail time if it runs afoul of a federal injunction barring Greenpeace from encroaching on Shell’s rigs or ships.

Environmentalists also mounted a satirical pro-drilling billboard on Interstate 10, near Shell’s Houston headquarters and staged protests at Shell-branded filling stations around the globe.

Shell noted the existence of the coral and other so-called Benthic invertebrates in an environmental impact assessment it assembled as part of its government-approved blueprint for Chukchi Sea drilling. And research cited by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes the soft brainlike coral as “common” north of the Alaska peninsula.

According to Shell surveys around its Burger Prospect in the Chukchi Sea, the coral represented only about 4 percent of the epifaunal species the firm collected beginning in 2008.

When researchers pulled samples from stations in the area, sea cucumbers, brittle stars and sea stars dominated.

‘We were surprised’

Greenpeace marine biologist John Hocevar described the coral as abundant on the Chukchi seafloor.

“We were surprised to discover large numbers of corals in the midst of Shell’s proposed drill site,” he said.

‘Patchy,’ Shell says

Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said the sea raspberry coral is very common in the area and “well known to be patchy” – which could explain why some random sampling would turn up big amounts of the coral, while other samples contained relatively little.

The existence of the coral is not documented in publicly available versions of Interior Department‘s broad environmental impact statement for Chukchi Sea oil leasing nor a government-produced environmental assessment focused on Shell’s drilling plan.

A spokeswoman for the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said the agency’s decisions about Shell’s proposed exploration “were based on years of comprehensive study and analyses of the potential effects of offshore activity on the environment, including seafloor habitats.”

“These environmental studies, which included the development of information regarding the presence of Arctic corals, were specifically considered in evaluating the footprint of Shell’s proposed activities,” said bureau spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman.

The agency recently commissioned a three-year, $2.9 million study on the Benthic invertebrates in the Chukchi sea. A March report by the University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute says the research shows some forms of soft coral are common in the Chukchi seabed.

Differing views

Opinions differ on whether drilling jeopardizes the soft coral. Some previous research describes it as resilient.

“When impacted, they return within months,” op de Weegh said.

But Hocevar described the coral as slow growing, long-lived and highly vulnerable to disturbance, adding that they provide habitat for fish and other marine life.

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