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In Chukchi drilling dispute, an unprecedented complaint from Shell Oil against environmental groups

Greenpeace protesters scale the pillars of the National Gallery in central London, on February 21, 2012, as they unfurl a banner in protest at what they claim are Shell's plans for drilling oil in the Arctic region.
Greenpeace protesters scale the pillars of the National Gallery in central London, on February 21, 2012, as they unfurl a banner in protest at what they claim are Shell's plans for drilling oil in the Arctic region.
AFP/Getty Images

KPCC's Patt Morrison program gets the pleasure of talking about oil drilling policies around the rest of the United States most of the time. On rare circumstances we get to talk about those issues in Pacific Swell. And the complaint I read yesterday, in a bitterly fought dispute over drilling in the Arctic circle, is a pretty rare thing. 

Less than two weeks ago Shell Oil got permission from BSEE (the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement; a part of the federal Department of Interior) to drill in the Arctic during the 2012 season, essentially, July of this year. Federal approval rested in significant part on developing a plan for a potential oil spill; standards for such plans became stricter after the Deepwater Horizon spill. 

Now Shell is preemptively suing an assortment of environmental groups who have vocalized opposition to its efforts to drill on the outer continental shelf, mostly in news accounts, blogs, and press releases. In a filing with a federal district court in Alaska, Shell's lawyers argue that "[g]iven their public statements and actions and their longstanding pattern and practice of filing challenges to Shell’s regulatory authorizations, Defendants [the environmental groups] cannot reasonably contend that they will not challenge BSEE’s approval of the OSRP [Oil Spill Response Plan]."

In its complaint, Shell seems to, um, complain about having to wait for an actual complaint from the environmental groups, because they "could wait until immediately prior to [Shell's] planned exploration activities in July 2012 to file a challenge to BSEE’s approval of [Shell's] [Oil Spill Response Plan] and to seek an injunction to prevent [Shell] from proceeding with its planned (and approved) exploration activities." Shell argues that since a federal authority approved its oil spill plan, and since the expense of moving drilling equipment to the Arctic and not getting to use it would be massive, the government should declare Shell's permit immune from legal challenges from these groups. 

What's so unusual here is that Shell is asking a court for relief from legal challenges that don't even exist yet; claims that have not yet been filed. As for why the stakes are high, Shell points out that in federal law, it's stated that “the outer Continental Shelf is a vital national resource reserve held by the Federal Government for the public, which should be made available for expeditious and orderly development, subject to environmental safeguards, in a manner which is consistent with the maintenance of competition and other national needs."

(The LA Times' Kim Murphy reports that Shell is also in a separate legal dispute with Greenpeace because its activists have been climbing all over the rig it plans to use to drill in the Arctic. Remember Xena Warrior Princess? Actress Lucy Lawless was singing her songs from that rig last week. I looked at that complaint too. Shell's asking a federal district court for a temporary restraining order, to prevent anyone affiliated with Greenpeace (including U.S. citizens) from interfering with its business anywhere on its property...which seems like it could refer to a LOT of property; the Carson refinery or the corner filling station or an oil rig. Evidence of the threat Shell presents to a U.S. federal court is Xena Warrior Princess on a rig in New Zealand.)

As all this is happening, Obama Administration officials, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu, are standing by the idea that U.S. policy should help wean the country off oil for good. Probably not the most comfortable spot for the federal government to be in at the moment. 

I called Shell for comment late Wednesday. No answer, yet, but Shell's spokeswoman acknowledges to the Los Angeles Times the potentially unprecedented nature of its main complaint against the 13 environmental groups. This legal dispute is worth watching for that reason: if a company interested in oil exploration can sue to squelch legal complaints from its potential--not actual--opponents, that could have major repercussions for projects on the three other outer continental shelves in the U.S.: the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific.