Royal Dutch Shell launched an extraordinary pre-emptive legal strike Wednesday against opponents of offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean, filing suit against more than a dozen environmental organizations likely to challenge its plan for drilling exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea this summer.
In a petition for declaratory relief filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, the oil giant seeks to have the court rule that the U.S. government complied with federal law when it approved Shell’s oil spill response plan for upcoming exploratory well-drilling in the Arctic.
The move is a clear attempt to beat environmental organizations to court and avert potentially costly delays for a project on which Shell has already spent $4 billion without drilling a single well.
A hearing was under way Wednesday afternoon in federal court in Anchorage on the company’s request for a temporary restraining order prohibiting Greenpeace from engaging in “illegal and dangerous actions” tied to the upcoming offshore drilling program.
“This is a very unique legal approach. I’m not sure anything like this has ever been done before,” Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh told the Los Angeles Times.
The suit names the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Defenders of Wildlife, the National Audubon Society and several other groups that for years have filed lawsuits and appeals challenging the federal government’s offshore leasing programs in the Arctic, the lease sale under which Shell gained the right to explore in the Chukchi, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of air quality permits for drilling operations.
Op de Weegh said Shell attorneys were convinced that conservationists would probably file suit against the oil spill response plan recently approved by the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and wanted to make sure that didn’t occur on the eve of drilling – an outcome that, since drilling can be done only during the ice-free summer months, could delay operations for another full year.
“We’re confident that the approval of this plan met all legal and regulatory requirements and it’s certainly strong enough to withstand legal review, but we’d just rather start that sooner rather than later,” op de Weegh said.
Whit Sheard, Pacific counsel and senior adviser for Oceana, one of the defendants named by Shell, said the oil company appears to be calculating that filing suit in Alaska, where there is a strong economic interest in proceeding with offshore oil exploration, will give the company an edge in winning approval to proceed.