A coalition of environmental protection organizations sued the US Department of the Interior [official website], Interior Secretary Ken Salazar [official profile] and other officials on Tuesday in an effort to block offshore oil drilling by Royal Dutch Shell [corporate website] in Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. The lawsuit [complaint, PDF] was filed in the US District Court for the District of Alaska [official website] by Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club [advocacy websites] and several other groups that monitor uses of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, the outer continental shelf, and the marine life that inhabits or migrates to the region. The complaint challenges decisions of Interior Department agency Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) [official website] to approve Shell's Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea Regional Exploration Program Oil Spill Response Plans in February and March, respectively. The plaintiff groups claim that
pursuant to the Oil Pollution Act's amendments to the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) ... [i]n approving the Spill [Response] Plans, BSEE failed to meet its statutory obligations to ensure the Spill [Response] Plans are adequate to clean up a worst case oil spill in adverse weather conditions to the maximum extent practicable, and to evaluate the environmental effects of, and alternatives to, Shell's proposed oil spill response efforts prior to approval.The lawsuit also points to the extraordinary difficulties demonstrated by the oil industry in attempting to contain and remove the Deepwater Horizon oil spill [BBC News backgrounder; JURIST news archive] last year, contrasting the "relatively benign environmental conditions" of the Gulf of Mexico with "efforts to clean up a spill in the Arctic [that] could occur more than a thousand miles from Coast Guard resources, with the threat of sea ice and icebergs, subzero temperatures, and darkness up to 20 hours a day." The complaint requests the Spill Response Plans be thrown out and offshore oil and gas activity blocked until BSEE complies with applicable environmental law.
In March, 35 Nigerian villages brought a suit against Shell in a London court alleging the company's slow response in cleaning up two oil spills in a neighboring river ruined their livelihoods. The plaintiffs claimed Shell is responsible for unspecified damages suffered by the villages which rely on the river for drinking water and farming. A similar lawsuit over water contamination was filed in the US [JURIST report] in October. The US Supreme Court [official website] granted certiorari in two cases last October to determine whether political organizations and oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, are immune from US lawsuits [JURIST report] under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). In February the Court heard arguments [JURIST report] in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] about whether three oil companies are immune from US lawsuits under the Alien Tort Statute of 1789 (ATS) [text] for alleged torture and international law violations that took place overseas. The court is slated to hear rearguments next term in Kiobel to determine whether the ATS allows US courts to hear lawsuits for overseas violations of international law.