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Greens go all in to fight Arctic drilling

Environmentalists are racing against the clock to stop Royal Dutch Shell from drilling in the Arctic Ocean, using a wide assortment of tactics to accomplish what has become one of the movement’s top priorities — and biggest cash cows.
Shell plans to start working on its exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea, about 75 miles northwest of Alaska, as early as July 19.
Arguing that the project could lead to catastrophic oil spills, degradation of landscapes and wildlife and billions of tons of Earth-warming carbon dioxide, the green movement has shifted into high gear.  Environmentalists are looking to both administrative and legal arenas for solutions, planning protests and calling directly on President Obama to halt the drilling.
{mosads}The fight has brought unprecedented support to green organizations, helped in part by the imagery of the pristine Arctic, endangered polar bears, native subsistence and a delicate climate — all of which, greens say, are threatened by Shell and the oil industry.
Over the next few weeks, greens think that their legal and administrative appeals — led by environmental law firm Earthjustice — have the most hope to stop the drill bit from hitting the ocean floor.
“The fact is that it’s very hard for the government to permit Arctic Ocean drilling and leases in compliance with the law, because there are laws that are meant to protect the environment, and they can’t be met in many instances,” said Erik Grafe, one of the four or so Earthjustice attorneys representing a coalition of environmental and conservation groups working in earnest against Shell’s drilling plan.
They notched this week what could end up being a major victory.
While the Fish and Wildlife Service gave Shell approval to drill near Pacific walrus habitat in a way that could harm or harass the mammals — an authorization that it needed to drill in the area — it did not waive regulations stating that no two rigs can drill less than 15 miles apart.
Shell wants to drill six wells, all of which would be less than 15 miles apart, and had asked for a waiver. While the company is still hoping to drill with just one well at a time, Grafe argues that the exploratory plan approved in May by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management only permitted the two-rig plan, not one.
Earthjustice is also pursuing a number of legal cases against aspects of Shell’s drilling plan and the permits it has received, in the hopes that it won’t get the final approval it needs: drilling permits from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
Grafe maintained his firm isn’t just trying to pursue every possible case and see what sticks.
“We’re here to hold the government to the law,” he said. “The fact that there are a lot of cases shows that it’s such an extreme environment and in many instances, the permitting processes are rushed due to industry pressure and other things.”
Meanwhile, Greenpeace is helping to organize protests across Alaska. The group is looking to build on momentum from large-scale protests in Seattle, during which hundreds of kayakers surround Shell’s contracted drilling rig — generating publicity that spread internationally.
“The momentum in Seattle was so epic and inspiring, and we’re really hoping that that could continue into Alaska,” said Cassady Sharp, a spokeswoman for the group.
“We’ve seen protests popping up in Juneau, in the North Slope villages and Homer, and because one of the rigs is now in Dutch Harbor, there are some protests popping up there as well.”
Greenpeace is also helping supporters contact the White House and the Interior Department in an effort to shut down the drilling activity.
The group plans to confront Obama in August when he visits Alaska, to push him to put a stop to the drilling if it is happening by then.
Groups like the Sierra Club, Oceana, the Alaska Wilderness League, the Natural Resources Defense Council and more are lending their particular strengths to the effort as well.
The Sierra Club is directing its resources at the White House and Interior Department, while helping Earthjustice with its legal and administrative efforts.
“We’re still optimistic that once the administration really takes that to heart and follows those particular permits, that they’ll find that they are not able to give that final permit to drill,” said Dan Chu, director of the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign.
The groups are also hoping that getting lawmakers on their side will help convince Obama to pull the approval. At their urging, five Democratic senators, led by Ed Markey (Mass.), wrote to Obama June 26 arguing that the wildlife rules do not allow Shell to go forward.
The company, however, is undeterred.
“We respect all views when it comes to Arctic development and we frequently engage with stakeholders who would prefer we shelf our Arctic ambitions,” Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesman, said of the green protests. “It remains our view the world will need arctic oil and gas resources.”
The issue is quickly making its mark as one of the top battles for the environmental movement, on par with the Keystone XL pipeline and oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“The Arctic and Alaska have always been a high priority for environmental organizations in the United States,” said Tyler Priest, a University of Iowa professor of environmental history who worked for the federal commission that investigated the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster and oil spill at a BP-owned well.
“It’s a symbolic issue, like the Keystone pipeline. It resonates with people.”
The greens, meanwhile, are glad that the issue is bringing so much attention to their cause.
For many organizations, Arctic drilling is bringing record traffic to their websites, along with influxes in donations, membership and other engagement.
“We’ve definitely seen a boost in awareness and engagement,” said Sharp. “On a digital level, so many more website visits, signups, people who want to more about this issue or how they can help. A major reason for that is that a lot of the images they were seeing out of Seattle were just these really bold acts of courage, one person getting a small kayak or canoe and confront a 40,000-ton rig in the middle of the Puget Sound.”
Sharp said many different factions on the political left are also taking notice and starting to think of Arctic drilling as a defining legacy for Obama.
“It’s so rich in details that make it a real defining moment for President Obama and how he wants to be remembered in history,” she said.
Sharp said Shell’s history in the Arctic makes Obama’s approval of its plan especially egregious. The company aborted its 2012 attempt at drilling and a rig ran aground on an Alaskan island, topping off a string of problems for that season’s activities.
Meanwhile, Shell is pushing ahead, and confident that it will drill once enough ice clears to make it safe. One rig is already in Alaska, and another one is close by.

The oil industry projects demand for oil and gas to double by 2050, making prospects like the Arctic essential to the nation’s future.
“We take a long term view of price and supply. If we do find a commercial discovery in Alaska, it will take ten years or longer before first oil could be produced,” said Smith, the Shell spokesman.

Tags BP Deepwater Horizon Obama Offshore drilling

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